Fri 17 September 2021

Chris Keulemans on how the Nobel Prize for Peter Handke shows that literature is always political when you’re rewriting history.

“I prefer toilet paper, an anonymous letter with toilet paper inside, to your empty and ignorant questions,” Peter Handke told a journalist during the pre-Nobel Prize ceremony press conference, when he was asked whether he now accepted the facts of the Srebrenica massacre in which some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed. 

That is the level he has reached. Talking about toilet paper when confronted with an exhaustively documented genocide. Now the Austrian-born poet, playwright, novelist and screenwriter owns £743,000 thanks to the Nobel Prize Committee, Handke no longer needs journalists to send him extra supplies.


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When the news broke in October that Peter Handke would receive this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, Ed Vulliamy responded immediately. The eminent journalist wrote: “So, the highest award in literature goes to a writer who denies the existence of concentration camps that it was my accursed honour to find in Bosnia in 1992.”

He continued: “My understanding of journalism is that you walk a straight line and report what’s true. Literature operates to other standards – as it should – yet this outrage from the ivory tower proceeds from obfuscation to rewriting history. They won, we lost. Lies won, truth lost.”

The realisation that truth is lost in the Western world they once hoped would save them is maddening to the Bosnians I met this week.

While travelling through Sarajevo, Mostar and Banja Luka, I asked them about the Nobel Prize. Their condemnation of the Swedish Academy was dignified but fierce. “Imagine what this means to the Bosnians who fled to Sweden during the war in the 1990s and worked hard to integrate and become decent, tax-paying citizens,” said theatre director Haris Pašović.

“Birds are singing songs of justice and freedom,” said historian Nihad Kreševljaković, “in the woods where the refugees of today’s wars are looking for shelter, at the very moment that Handke collects his prize.” On social media, people are sharing altered images of the golden Nobel coin, reading: “Not in my name. Alfred Nobel. Peter Handke MMXIX”.

The war is not ancient history here. The Dayton agreement of 1995 brought an end to the killings, but laid down a system still that reproduces ethnic boundaries today. If I want to organise an event in my field – arts and culture – I will have to deal with 16 ministers on all levels, from local to national. The political system is stifling and corrupt – a result of the Serbian aggression that Handke has always denied.

On 11 June 1999 – the day that the treaty was signed to end the Kosovo war, the last war in the break-up of Yugoslavia – I was at the Burgtheater in Vienna to attend the opening night of Handke’s Voyage by Dugout or The Play of the Film of the War.

The stage was set as the lobby of hotel Acapulco, somewhere deep in the Balkans. An American and a Spanish film director were here for a screen test of possible actors in their war movie. What followed was a parade of stereotypes: the village storyteller, the historian, the journalist, the donor, the suicidal, the president, the beauty and the poet.

In this war, Handke tried to tell us, every truth was a lie. Everyone who witnessed the killings was guilty. Why just point at the Serbs, why not at all the observers? Those journalists from the West, who claimed to see it all but never intervened – shouldn’t they be brought to justice? 

Peter Handke, attending the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, on 10 December 2019

The audience, serious Viennese theatre aficionados clad in black and grey, was dumbfounded. At the end, when the American and the Spaniard decided to cancel their movie, the applause was mechanical. It fluttered and dimmed. The actors were left bowing to an empty hall. 

These days, the Swedish Academy tries desperately to separate a writer’s literary qualities from his political stance. The chairman of the Nobel Committee, Anders Olsson, expressed “concern and deep sadness” for the sentiments expressed about the prize but stood behind the academy’s decision. “It is obvious that we understand Peter Handke’s literary work in very different ways”, he wrote to the Bosnian president of the Associaton of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide.

I happened to be present at a moment when his literary and political views coincided. I came home knowing that they are one and the same.


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