2019 Nobel Prize for Literature: Why is Peter Handke’s choice seen as divisive?

What is the criticism against the Swedish Academy?

Updated - December 03, 2021 07:08 am IST

Published - October 13, 2019 12:02 am IST

Two men pass by a bookshop in Warsaw on October 10, 2019.

Two men pass by a bookshop in Warsaw on October 10, 2019.

The story so far: On Thursday, Austrian writer Peter Handke bagged the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature, and Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was named the winner for 2018 . Last year, the Swedish Academy, which awards the annual Nobel Prize for Literature, called off the ceremony after a sex scandal. The Swedish body called for reforms in the secretive organisation and said it wanted to move on from the scandal. But apart from the ‘Eurocentric’ choice for 2018 and 2019, picking Handke, who has played down Serb atrocities against Bosnian Muslims in the Balkan war, have left many writers and critics fuming.

Why was the prize shelved last year?

The 233-year-old Swedish Academy was forced to cancel the 2018 prize when rape accusations emerged against the husband of an Academy member. The Academy has made changes to improve transparency. But the Nobel Foundation, which funds the $914,000 prize, said the organisation (its members are elected for life and statutes can be changed only with the approval of Sweden’s king) needed to do more. Lars Heikensten, executive director of the Nobel Foundation, told Reuters that the Academy should review the lifetime membership and test out ideas on limited terms of office.

Why is another dispute brewing?

While announcing the 2019 prize, the Academy said it was awarding it to Handke “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.” According to critics, Handke’s choice is controversial because of his Serbia-as-victim stance in the Balkan war and for attending the funeral of former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. Under Milosevic’s regime, thousands of ethnic Albanians were killed and at least a million had to flee. The Serbian president was indicted for war crimes in 1999 but died in 2006 before a ruling was reached. At the funeral, Handke said: “I don’t know the truth. But I look. I listen. I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milosevic,” Balkan Transitional Justice, a platform that looks at justice issues for the former Yugoslav countries, posted on its website. On Twitter, Kosovo’s Ambassador to Washington, Vlora Citaku, reacted strongly: “Have we become so numb to racism, so emotionally desensitized to violence, so comfortable with appeasement that we can overlook one’s subscription & service to the twisted agenda of a genocidal maniac?” The 76-year-old novelist, essayist, playwright’s works include Short Let ter, Long Farewell , The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick , A Sorrow Beyond Dreams , Till Day You Do Part or A Question of Light and Slow Homecoming . He co-scripted Wim Wenders’ critically acclaimed 1987 film “Wings of Desire”. Writer Hari Kunzru, who has taught the Austrian’s works, told The Guardian : “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,” adding, “More than ever we need public intellectuals who are able to make a robust defence of human rights in the face of the indifference and cynicism of our political leaders. Handke is not such a person.”


What about Olga Tokarczuk?

The 57-year-old Polish writer, one of the 15 women to win the Nobel Prize since 1901, bagged the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction with her ambitious novel on border-crossing, Flights. In the opening pages, the narrator looks back at the first trip across the fields as a child and coming across a river which looked enormous: “Standing there on the embankment…I realised that — in spite of all the risks involved — a thing in motion will always be better than a thing at rest; that change will always be a nobler thing than permanence….” Tokarczuk is driven by the attempt to contain a multitude of often contradictory perspectives into one whole, says the Nobel citation, and she has “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” A trained psychologist, Tokarczuk made her debut as a fiction writer in 1993 with The Journey of the Book People , where the characters set off in search of a mysterious book in the Pyrenees.

Tokarczuk has courted controversy too. In 2015, her historical novel The Books of Jacob , which tells the story of a Jewish-born religious leader who leads fellow Jews to forced conversions to Catholicism in the 18th century, won her Poland’s highest book prize. But statements she made soon after — that Poland had “committed horrendous acts as colonizers, as a national majority that suppressed the minority…” — angered nationalists. Tokarczuk was branded a “targowiczanin” or traitor in Polish, and she had to be under protection of bodyguards for a while because of death threats.

How did the Nobel Laureates react?

With Polish elections due this Sunday, Tokarczuk told a press conference at Bielefeld in Germany that she wanted Poles to “vote in a right way for democracy”. Handke, who lives at Chaville outside Paris, admitted to reporters that he was surprised. “I was astonished, yes. It was very courageous by the Swedish Academy, this kind of decision.” He had told The New York Times in 2006 he no longer cared [for the top literary prize] because he thought it was “finished” for him after his “expressions about Yugoslavia.”

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.