October 11, 2019

Nobel prize for literature once again descends into controversy


After a year with no Nobel prize in literature (read about the Swedish Academy’s sexual abuse and financial misconduct scandal here), expectations were high. Two awards would be given: one for 2018, one for 2019.

While the 2018 medal has gone to Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, who the Guardian declares “not only a fine winner but a culturally important one,” the 2019 medal has gone to Austrian playwright and author Peter Handke—a decision being condemned by just about everyone.

A snippet from a statement released by PEN America:

PEN America does not generally comment on other institutions’ literary awards. We recognize that these decisions are subjective and that the criteria are not uniform. However, today’s announcement of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature to Peter Handke must be an exception. We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

That’s right, Handke is accused of being a genocide apologist. According to the Guardian, Handke has “suggested that Sarajevo’s Muslims had massacred themselves and blamed the Serbs, and denied the Srebrenica genocide.”

How do other authors feel about the selection? A few choice quotes collected by the Guardian:

Hari Kunzru: “Handke is a troubling choice for a Nobel committee that is trying to put the prize on track after recent scandals … He is a fine writer, who combines great insight with shocking ethical blindness.”

Slavoj Žižek: “In 2014, Handke called for the Nobel to be abolished, saying it was a ‘false canonisation’ of literature. The fact that he got it now proves that he was right. This is Sweden today: an apologist of war crimes gets a Nobel prize while the country fully participated in the character assassination of the true hero of our times, Julian Assange. Our reaction should be: not the literature Nobel prize for Handke but the Nobel peace prize for Assange.”

Miha Mazzini: “Some artists sold their human souls for ideologies (Hamsun and Nazism), some for hate (Celine and his rabid antisemitism), some for money and power (Kusturica) but the one that offended me the most was Handke with his naivety for the Milošević regime.”

There’s a small outpouring of support for Handke, with said supporters calling attention to pages in Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia that discuss just this. (Eternal gratitude to anyone who sends photos of the pages.)

Scott Abbott, one of Handke’s translators, calls attention back to an essay he wrote prefacing Handke’s Voyage by Dugout, stating: “It is my answer to the knee-jerk critics assembled yesterday to protest without a single reference to Peter’s actual work.” You can read it for yourself here.

Way to keep the controversy broiling, Swedish Academy! They’re also getting some (though obviously less) heat for failing to fulfill their promise to be less “Eurocentric” with their choices this year.

That’s enough talk about Handke, though. Let’s talk about Olga.

Though Tokarczuk has long been considered “one of the greatest writers in Poland’s oft-overlooked literary scene,” she was hardly a favorite for the award according to Vox—which seems odd to me, as she won the 2018 Man Booker and the Nike, Poland’s highest literary honor. Back in 2017, the Bookseller called Tokarczuk “one of the greatest living writers you have never heard of.

Flights, Tokarczuk’s six novel and the title she won for, “interweaves reflections on travel with an in-depth exploration of the human body, broaching life, death, motion, and migration.”

From the book description (apologies, have not read this one yet):

Chopin’s heart is carried back to Warsaw in secret by his adoring sister. A woman must return to her native Poland in order to poison her terminally ill high school sweetheart, and a young man slowly descends into madness when his wife and child mysteriously vanish during a vacation and just as suddenly reappear.

Sounds fascinating! Like many of you (I assume), I’ll be bumping Flights, along with as many other titles of Tokarczuk’s that I can get my hands on, to the top of my TBR pile.



Amelia Stymacks is the former director of digital marketing at Melville House.