2019 Literature Nobel Laureate Peter Handke steers clear of controversy in speech, speaks of mother's influence on writing

  • Handke has been widely criticised as an apologist for Serbian war crimes during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

  • The choice of the Austrian novelist as this year's winner of the prestigious award prompted substantial criticism over his defence of Serbs' actions during the wars and for his speaking at the 2006 funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died while facing trial for war crimes.

  • Academy member Peter Englund on Friday said he would boycott this year's Nobel ceremonies in protest of Handke's selection. A member of the nominating committee, Gun-Britt Sundstrom, earlier announced her resignation in protest.

Nobel Literature Prize laureate Peter Handke has lashed out against journalists asking about his views on the wars in former Yugoslavia.

Handke has been widely criticised as an apologist for Serbian war crimes during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In a news conference on 6 December ahead of next week’s prize award ceremony, Handke bristled at questions about his writings on the wars in former Yugoslavia.

 2019 Literature Nobel Laureate Peter Handke steers clear of controversy in speech, speaks of mothers influence on writing

2019 Nobel Prize laureate in literature Peter Handke at a press conference at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden. The Associated Press/Anders Wiklund

He concluded the testy meeting by saying that after the prize was announced, he had received a letter filled with soiled toilet paper “and I tell you... I prefer toilet paper, the anonymous letter with toilet paper, to your empty and ignorant questions.”

The choice of the Austrian novelist as this year’s winner of the prestigious award prompted substantial criticism over his defence of Serbs’ actions during the wars and for his speaking at the 2006 funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died while facing trial for war crimes.

Protests are planned in the Swedish capital on Tuesday, the day the 9-million-kronor ($948,000) prize is presented. Handke fended off a question at the news conference about what he could say to the protesters.

“Tell me — perhaps I need your advice,” he parried.

During his Nobel Lecture on 7 December, Handke steered clear of any controversial topics surrounding his stand on Serbia, the ongoing protests against his win, etc. He began his speech with a reference to one of his poems titled 'Walk About The Villages'.

“Play the game. Don’t make it all about you. Look for challenges. But don’t aim for a specific outcome. Eschew ulterior motives. Hold nothing back. Be gentle and strong. Get involved, and the hell with winning. Don’t over-analyze, don’t calculate, but stay alert, alert for signs. Be vulnerable. Show your eyes, invite others to look deep; make sure there’s enough space, and try to recognize everyone’s own image. Make no decisions you don’t feel excited about. Let yourself fail. Above all, give yourself time and take the long way round.

"Never ignore what a tree or a body of water has to tell you. Turn in where you are drawn to do so, and give yourself permission to bask in the sun. Never mind your relatives, offer support to strangers, bend down to look at trifles, duck into deserted places, don’t fall for the high drama of destiny, laugh conflict to bits. Show your true colours till you prove to be right, and the rustling of leaves turns sweet. Walk about the villages,” he said, as quoted in the Nobel Prize official website.

— Read Peter Handke's entire Nobel Lecture here.

He narrated a lot of memories and stories narrated by his mother during his childhood, and how some of them were "decisive" for his "life as a writer".

"Most of the other occurrences my mother described to me involved members of her immediate or extended family, and almost always the main person was one of her two brothers who had later 'fallen on the field of honour' in the Second World War," he said.

***

The award also has roiled the Swedish Academy, which chooses the laureate from nominees selected by a committee. Academy member Peter Englund on Friday said he would boycott this year’s Nobel ceremonies in protest of Handke’s selection. A member of the nominating committee, Gun-Britt Sundstrom, earlier announced her resignation in protest.

Kosovo and Albania say they will boycott the Nobel Literature Prize ceremony to be held on 10 December to protest the award being given to Handke who both countries link to the war in the former Yugoslavia.

Handke was an opponent of NATO’s airstrikes against Serbia in the Kosovo War of the late 1990s and spoke in 2006 at the funeral of autocratic Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Kosovo was part of Serbia until 1999 when NATO intervened to stop Milosevic.

Kosovo’s outgoing foreign minister, Behgjet Pacolli has instructed the ambassador in Sweden “to boycott the ceremony,” adding that “a writer who supported Milosevic and his genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo does not deserve the Nobel Prize.”

In solidarity with Kosovo Albanians, Albania’s ambassador to Sweden won’t attend Tuesday’s Nobel ceremony, the Foreign Ministry said Monday. The country is boycotting the ceremony because of Handke’s support for “Slobodan Milosevic, the ‘butcher of the Balkans,’ who led so many mass atrocities during the bloody collapse of the former Yugoslavia.”

Albanian acting foreign minister, Gent Cakaj, who was born in Kosovo, tweeted that the “justification of war atrocities during the Yugoslavia break-up must not be rewarded.”

For Milazim Krasniqi, a resident of Hoce e Vogel, a small village 80 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of the capital Pristina, he can’t believe “that Milosevic’s friend and supporter gets the prize in the 21st century.” There were more than 40 people killed in the village during the war.

More than 10,000 were killed or died in total in the 1998-99 war. A 78-day NATO air campaign ended Serb rule in Kosovo, and the United Nations governed the province until 2008 when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, which Belgrade hasn’t recognized yet.

“It is intolerable, unacceptable to promote notorious writers with such a prize, writers who make a reasoning of the crimes in the region,” said Shkelzen Maliqi, a Pristina-based analyst.

The frontpage of Koha Ditore daily newspaper showed Milosevic applauding Handke with the Nobel Prize.

That was, nevertheless, not the opinion of the ethnic Serb minority in Kosovo.

“Whatever he wrote about the Serbs, he wrote it good and frightfully,” said Dimitrie Dimitric, an ethnic Serb in Hoce e Madhe, close to Hoce e Vogel. “Those who gave it to him are not senseless.”

Posters were plastered around Hoce e Madhe that said “Congratulations to our Nobel!”

Tensions between Kosovo and Serbia have been worsening in recent times. The European Union-facilitated dialogue that started in 2011 has been stalled since last year after Kosovo set a 100% import duty on all Serbian and Bosnian goods, despite international calls to lift or suspend the measure.

Kosovo insists on the full recognition of its statehood as the end result of the talks, something which for now isn’t acceptable to Serbia.

The Swedish Academy is still trying to recover from a sex scandal that caused the awarding of the 2018 literature prize to be postponed until this year.

Watch Peter Handke's Nobel Lecture here:

— With inputs from The Associated Press and © THE NOBEL FOUNDATION 2019

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Updated Date: Dec 10, 2019 14:19:28 IST