Editor’s Note: Rafia Zakaria is the author of “The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan” (Beacon 2015) and “Veil” (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn newspaper in Pakistan and The Baffler. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
“You know it was we who protected you from the Asian hordes for centuries. And without us you would still be eating with your fingers.” So declares a character defending the Serbs (and their attendant massacres) in author Peter Handke’s war play “Voyage by Dugout.” While these are the words of a character, that character’s creator, Handke, famously spoke at the 2006 funeral of Serb dictator and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic – and has now been awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature, to the consternation of many.
He is not alone in receiving the honor – he shares it with Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, who was awarded the 2018 prize at the same time and also won the Man Booker Prize last year. Tokarczuk’s work, which has also won many other prizes (such as the Nike, Poland’s highest literary honor) focuses on challenging nationalist cover-ups for historical oppression. The two prizes were awarded together after the 2018 Nobel in literature was postponed in the aftermath of a sexual and financial scandal.
The two authors’ work is a study in contrasts, depicting the cleavages that haunt Europe in these days of ideological wrangling among far-right nationalists, neo-Nazis, anti-fascists and cosmopolitans, in part over whether all moral positions are indeed equal and similarly laudable. The “both sides” contagion with which Americans are so unfortunately familiar from their President’s politics, seems now to have infected the Nobel Prize Committee for Literature as well. In offering up the “both sides” version of the Prize, the lifetime elected members have apparently refused to make the moral judgment that good literature demands.
Tokarczuk’s work is an embrace of literary bridge building and border exploration. A former psychologist, her 2014 novel “The Books of Jacob,” for instance, is set on the Polish-Ukrainian border and tells of an 18th-century Jewish religious leader who forced conversions of fellow Jews to Catholicism. In Tokarczuk’s characteristic style, the novel prods at the self-image of Poles as Europe’s morally oppressed by highlighting what Tokarczuk described in a television interview as “horrendous acts” of colonization they committed themselves. For this outrageous act of literature, which went against the nationalist narrative of Polish history, Tokarczuk was speedily declared a traitor by many on the Polish far right. Then came death threats, which led her Polish publisher to hire bodyguards for her.
Handke’s political project in his literary work is more spiteful, devoting his significant prowess to the sly blurring of moral categories in what a German commentator in 2006 dubbed “a coquettishly playful relativisation” of the moral complicity of Serbians in the Milosevic-led massacre of nearly 200,000 people in Bosnia. His audacity won Handke favor among the Serbian literary elite, but the censure of most every one else (American thinker Susan Sontag famously declared him “finished” in New York after “Voyage by Dugout” was staged).
For his own part, Handke defended himself in an interview in 2006 saying that Milosevic was “not a hero and a tragic human being” and that he “was a writer and not a judge.” It was the sort of slippery statement a man with his formidable literary talent might make. Even if one did accept his premise that writers have no power over the moral frames in which they place their fictional creations, it does not erase the actual fact that when the Western allies began bombing to stop the ongoing massacre, he wrote an open letter angrily denouncing them as “butchers worshipping at the altars of the gods of war.”
Between the two, Tokarczuk is more the darling of literary prizes, while Handke has the dubious notoriety of having had prizes (such as the Heinrich-Heine prize) withdrawn from him. His posture of being above such things is notable; he responded to losing the Heinrich-Heine by saying he was refusing to accept the honor anyway.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, though ironically now, Handke in 2014 publicly demanded that the Nobel Prize for Literature be abolished for its “false canonization of literature” and condemned its trite deliverance of “a moment of attention and six pages in the newspaper.”
One imagines that Handke feels rather differently now that he has been crowned king, with his inveterate genius potentially absolving, in the eyes of the Nobel Prize Committee at least, his malevolent politics. The irrelevance of one to another may indeed be the Nobel Committee’s rationalization for giving Handke this award, but such thinking fails to mask the stench of honoring a man who championed a war criminal with a eulogy. To defend their selection, Mats Malm, the permanent secretary, said the committee chose on a literary and aesthetic basis and that “it’s not the academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations.”
The fault of the academy lies not in the limitation of their mandate but in their apparently tacit refusal to consider that literary quality itself is inherently bound up with moral considerations. It is true that the Nobel Committee chose to honor a woman this year, one who has been called “the greatest living writer you have never heard of.” Yet it feels almost as if they could not bear to only honor Tokarczuk, the lucky 15th woman against the 113 men who have been Nobel Literature Prize recipients.
Handke’s work represents so well the right side of the political divide in Europe, the one that seeks to revitalize an imagined past and perceives the present as a moment of victimization by encroaching others, women, minorities and particularly the irksome migrants. Tokarczuk’s work is an insistent rebellion against this nationalism of borders; her 2007 book “Flights” in particular, published in English in 2017, reflects the nomadic lives of the people living in the present. Her selection by the lifetime-elected Nobel cohort of judges seems a nod to the forward-looking left.
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In refusing to choose between Handke and Tokarczuk, the committee granted both undeserved moral equivalency. It is a trick out of Handke’s own playbook – the 200,000 people that were killed at the hands of Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic between 1993-1996 were all victims of a war that in 2006 Handke deemed “terrible on all sides.” While all writers have the right to say what they wish, what they say has great relevance to the reverence afforded to them.