The 2019 Nobel Prize for literature awarded to Austrian author Peter Handke has, predictably, caused a storm of protest, both in countries that used to be part of Yugoslavia and also the global literary community. Handke is widely considered to be an apologist for the former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic. But here’s why I think the Swedish Academy’s decision deserves a more nuanced reaction than indignation: Handke wandered into that ugly territory while on a legitimate quest that writers need, and often lack, the courage to embark on.
First things first: Milosevic was a blood-soaked dictator. Handke’s writings about him, and about what happened during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s — such as this article in the French daily Liberation — attempted to establish a balance of condemnation between the war crimes of the Serbs, led by Milosevic, and those of their enemies, mostly Croats and Muslims. That’s a deeply misguided exercise, because each war crime stands alone in its monstrosity. International tribunals don’t go in for comparisons but rule on each case separately.
It bears exploring, though, the path that led Handke, one of the most acclaimed writers in the German language today, to Milosevic’s 2006 funeral, where he made a short speech (of which no video or audio has survived).
One of the recurring themes in Handke’s work is the inadequacy of language as an instrument of communication. Beschreibungsimpotenz — descriptive impotence — is one of his favourite terms. He appears to see his work as an attempt to find more precise ways to describe experiences than people normally use. As he once put it,
At least Handke tried where many others would have abstained for fear of what it would do to their ability to collect literary prizes without controversy. The failure detracts from his power as a writer; the courage adds to it.
“I don’t have an ideology, I don’t have a worldview, no real message to communicate. My message is in changing the sentences so that the sentences become material, so that I can try to rework my speechless experiences into a kind of second nature.”
Handke dove into the Yugoslav wars at least in part because of an irritation with the charged language used by journalists and public intellectuals to describe them. He wrote in the Liberation piece:
“Let us finally listen to each other instead of screaming and barking in two enemy camps. But let us also no longer tolerate the beings (?), the evil (!) spirits (?), who, in the magical Yugoslav problem, continue to fire bullet words such as ‘revisionism,’ ‘apartheid,’ ‘Hitler,’ ‘bloody dictatorship,’ etc.”
One could see in this irritation a cynical quest for moral equivalence, for a justification of Serbia’s ambition to hold all of Yugoslavia under its sway. Handke liked the big Yugoslav federal state. His mother was Slovenian, and he wrote his first novel on the Croatian island of Krk while the federation was still intact — the way he would have preferred it to remain.
But I find it more likely that Handke mainly was searching, as usual, for a way to change the language, to defuse the “bullet words” for the sake of a better, more precise description. Handke himself certainly saw it that way, and wondered at times whether he was up to the job. He wrote in his Serbian travelogue, A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia:
“Yes, with each sentence I too have asked myself whether such a writing isn’t obscene, ought even to be tabooed, forbidden — which made the writing journey adventurous in a different way, dangerous, often very depressing (believe me).”
The journey Hande undertook was one of trying to deconflict language, to get the hatred out of it so meanings become more transparent, more equal to the underlying experiences. He counted other writers, even those with whom he disagreed, as his allies in this. In his 2012 article, Peter Handke and the Language of War, Scott Abbott recalled that when another Nobel Prize winner, Guenter Grass, backed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s intervention in Yugoslavia, Serbs started a campaign to collect Grass’ books and send them back to him. Handke — no fan of Grass or of the intervention — urged them to reconsider and to keep reading Grass even if they opposed his politics.
Yet Handke’s deconflicting effort is largely a failure. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, himself an artist, tweeted on Thursday the ‘shamelessness’ of Handke’s Nobel triumph made him feel like vomiting.
As an opinion writer, I am familiar with this kind of failure, because I’ve often failed in this way, too. When you try to defuse a narrative, to listen to both sides, to find neutral but exact words for charged, polarising issues, you end up nobody’s friend — and you often miss the truth, which often is black and white, after all. In journalism, neutrality is a necessary tool but also a trap.
But in literature, with more space available and readers more invested, it should be possible to turn neutrality into a variety of viewpoints to present a more complex picture. At least Handke tried where many others would have abstained for fear of what it would do to their ability to collect literary prizes without controversy. The failure detracts from his power as a writer; the courage adds to it.
Leonid Bershidsky is Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist.