Nobel Prizes for literature were awarded Thursday to two writers enmeshed in Europe’s social and political fault lines: a liberal Pole who has irked her country’s conservative government and an Austrian accused by many liberals of being an apologist for Serbian war crimes.
The rare double announcement — with the 2018 prize going to Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 award to Austria’s Peter Handke — came after no literature prize was awarded last year due to sex abuse allegations that rocked the Swedish Academy, which awards the literature prize.
Handke — who once called for the Nobel Prize to be abolished because of its “false canonization” of literature — said he was “astonished” to receive the literature award.
Serbian officials and media hailed Handke on Thursday as a “great friend of Serbia,” but Kosovans reacted angrily to his Nobel Prize. Vlora Citaku, Kosovo’s ambassador to the United States, tweeted that “In a world full of brilliant writers, the Nobel committee chooses to reward a propagator of ethnic hatred & violence. Something has gone terribly wrong!”
Handke’s staunch support of the Serbs during the 1990s Balkans wars has set him at odds with many other Western intellectuals.
In a 1996 essay, “Justice for Serbia,” Handke accused Western news media of always depicting Serbs as aggressors. He denied that genocide was committed when Bosnian Serb troops massacred some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the enclave of Srebrenica in 1995 and was an opponent of NATO’s airstrikes against Serbia for that country’s violent crackdown in Kosovo in the late 1990s. In an interview with Serbia’s state TV earlier this year, Handke said those behind the bombing “don’t belong to Europe and the planet Earth.”
Handke’s views led novelist Salman Rushdie in 1999 to call him a contender for “International Moron of the Year.” Rushdie’s publicist at Penguin Random House said Thursday that Rushdie stood by what he wrote in 1999.
Novelist Jennifer Egan, president of PEN America, said the writers’ group deeply regretted the choice of Handke.
“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,” she said. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this.”