OPINION: Nobel Shame

Nobel's 2019 literary prize recipient Peter Handke a deeply troubling choice says historian Srdja Pavlović

Srdja Pavlović - 16 October 2019

This year, one of two Nobel Prizes for literature was awarded to Peter Handke - great writer and the follower of the late Serbian strongmen, Slobodan Milosevic, as well as the denier of the Srebrenica genocide. The Nobel Committee was quick to point out that Handke was selected because of his mastery of the extravagance of words. His political fans present a similar point and insist that any other suggestion would amount to an insult to literature. Both, in fact, argue that the whole person does not matter but that a marvelous scribe should and could take primacy over an ideological warrior and moral midget who, in real life, defended the policies of ethnic cleansing, dined with war criminals and swam in the Drina river at the spot where the Muslim inhabitants of Visegrad and the surrounding areas were slaughtered by the Bosnian Serbs in the spring and summer of 1992.

I believe that it is wrong to try and separate a person from his/her spoken and written words. One's words rest, among other things, on the foundations of lived experience, a cultural context one lives within, ideological preferences and political views one ascribes to as well as one's world view and understanding of the nature of human relations.

The effort to separate a writer from a person sharpening a pencil in order to conquer the innocence of white paper, or a person hitting letters on a keyboard as if exchanging punches in a street fight, is nothing more than an effort to marginalize any and all misdeeds a writer might have committed in his ordinary daily life. It is an attempt to cover-up writer's possible 'salto morale' by blowing up his/her 'literary creativity." As if a writer is a naïve creature inhabiting only the constellation of fine and literary arts, and whose earthly misdeeds should be forgiven and treated the way medical professionals treat emotional outbursts of underdeveloped children. Such an effort lessens the power of a written word and strips it of the sense of honesty that originates in the above-mentioned foundations. This is, I believe, the point at which the Nobel Committee had betrayed its broad mandate. Sadly, it is not the first time it did so and in more than just a category. Handke now joins a startling lineup of Nobel winners who were/are NAZI sympathizers, enamored with dictators, and war criminals.

It is, therefore, dishonest, to say the least, to argue that Peter Handke's Nobel Prize for literature exclusively reflects on his mastery of the extravagance of words. To suggest that critics of this decision by the Nobel Committee do not know the last thing about literature because they did not read Handke's work, or do not know how to read it is both an insult to readers and a testament to Handke's flankers overblown egos and to their moral blindness.

To be fair to Handke, however, some of the post-award criticism directed at him and the Nobel Committee originates from media outlets whose past reporting on the late Serbian strongmen, Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav wars, and other bloodbaths such were the conflict in Darfur, for example, is not beyond reproach. It is worth remembering notable apologists for Slobodan Milosevic like The Guardian's former Comment Editor, Seumas Milne, as well as Neil Clark and John Laughland. But this is a question for a different commentary.

Going back to the main topic, one could read a text in an information void and ignore everything one knows about the author of those lines. While that would require a significant ability to segregate written word from the reality inhabited by the author, it could be done. Numerous authors were (and are) political and ideological monsters, immoral omnivores, pathological liars, psychopaths and sociopaths, perverts and moral midgets. Each of us makes a choice to read their writings or skip over their books. Each of us decides if reading their texts would be colored by author's youthful infatuation with Nazism, their support for Stalin or Fidel, or with author's denying of the Srebrenica genocide. Each of us lives with such choices.

The situation is completely different when it comes to literary awards. Such awards only appear to be the confirmation of talent, linguistic mastery and captivating literary flair displayed by a given author. Anyone who had an opportunity to participate in the work of a jury for a literary award knows full-well that the literary excellence is but one of many selection criteria. It is, moreover, seldom the main criteria. It is no secret that geography, race, linguistic and cultural contexts, importance of the subject matter, a desire of the jury/selection committee to correct its past mistakes and maintain relevance of a given award, efforts to project the so-called impartiality, candidate's political views, as well as candidate's gender and sex, play a very important role in the selection process. Not to speak of a political message carried by every literary award.

The insisting on the absolute primacy of the literary criteria in the selection process is nothing but a convenient shield. As a goalkeeper who is truly afraid of a penalty, the Nobel Committee members ducked behind such a shield and kept their eyes wide shut in hope of avoiding any and all criticism for settling on Peter Handke - a genocide denier - as one of this year's Nobel laureates for literature. They did so forgetting it is a glass shield indeed, and that everyone clearly sees the depth of a moral void the Committee members now inhabit.

Every literary award carries a certain moral dimension and awarding it positions the recipient onto a high moral platform, turning a writer into a powerful point of reference and an inspiration to us mere mortals, who are using written words as temporary shelter from our daily problems. Everything that the laureate worked for, and everything he / she supported including politics and ideology has acquired a new and powerful legitimacy. Handke's views (past and present) now have a stamp of the Nobel Committee, and that is where the greatest responsibility of the Nobel Committee lies. It is worth noting that the supporters of Slobodan Milosevic's policies claim that Handke's award legitimizes such policies. This is the other side of a cursed coin: divorcing a literary master from a political moron also works in favor of those who prefer a political moron over a fine scribe.

I believe that Peter Handke is not a person who could carry moral authority that comes with the Nobel Prize. I am also aware that he is not the first controversial Nobel laureate but I hope that he would be the last. Mind you, Handke's non-literary activities deserve an award of a different kind: one given to genocide deniers and moral midgets. There, he would be in good company, alongside Harold Pinter, the former member of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, and shoulder to shoulder with the filmmaker Nemanja-Emir Kusturica, who attempted to pave over the Visegrad killing fields from the 1990s by erecting a monstrosity called the Andricgrad.

Unlike another Nobel laureate, Mikhail Shlokhov, who was "embraced" by Stalin during that fateful evening in Maxim Gorky's apartment in the fall 1931, Peter Handke volunteered to be Slobodan Milosevic's Scheherazade. The political abyss which decades ago swallowed this talented writer is so deep that cannot be masked by any award no matter how prestigious it might appear to be.

Srdja Pavlović specializes modern Balkan history, culture, and politics in the Department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.