Many have called Peter Handke one of the best and most inventive writers to have emerged in German literature since GĂĽnter Grass. A prolific Austrian author of novels and poetry, who has delved into screenwriting, theater and film directing has earned great recognition over the years. However, heâ€™s also been accused of supporting and extolling former Yugoslav leader and dictator Slobodan MiloĹˇeviÄ‡. Recently he’s been making headlines again after receiving the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. At the announcement on October 10, Swedish Academy member Anders Olsson claimed the selection was literary, not political. The jury claimed to have actually managed to separate the art from the artist. But was that really the case?
What Exactly Has Handke Done?
Although primarily known as a celebrated author, he has never shied away from criticizing Western countries. Western media, such as The American Scholar,Â write things such asÂ â€śMiloĹˇeviÄ‡ was on trial for war crimes, including genocide in Bosnia for overseeing the 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica, when he died in his prison cell in The Hague on March 11, 2006.â€ť
In response, Handke argued that the Serbian people were the true victims of this conflict. What’s more, he gave an official speech to 20,000 people at the funeral of Slobodan MiloĹˇeviÄ‡. MiloĹˇeviÄ‡, when still alive, asked the writer to be a witness at his trial for crimes in former Yugoslavia. Even though Handke declined, he attended the sessions and later wrote about them. Afterwards Handke said: â€śI donâ€™t know the truth. But I look, I listen, I feel, I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan MiloĹˇeviÄ‡.â€ť
In 1999, Salman Rushdie named Handke the runner-up for â€śInternational moron of the yearÂ for his apologies for the genocidal regime led by Slobodan MiloĹˇeviÄ‡.
So, this is where the eternal dilemma arises:
Can we Separate Literary Works from the Political Beliefs of their authors?
The jury surely had a contentious deliberation considering this in their decision to award Handke the Nobel Prize. Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian 2004 Nobel laureate for literature and a longstanding friend of Handkeâ€™s said, â€śWhoever prevents an artist from working commits a crime not only against the poet but against the entire public.â€ť
Even some of Handkeâ€™s harshest critics agree that his poetic abilities are astonishing. However, survivors of genocide and their loved ones will tell you that disbelieving or dismissing their experience is tacit approval of genocide.
In 2008, novelist Jonathan Littell remarked: â€śHe might be a fantastic artist, but as a human being he is my enemy.â€ť
There still appears to be no end to either the harsh criticism of him or the strong support for Handke. So, is it possible to enjoy his literary output and ignore the fact Handke has supported the far-right Serbian regime that ruled Yugoslavia until the Balkan War? Itâ€™s a question about which people disagree wildly. It’s hard enough to reach a consensus on any topic, and art and politics definitely are certainly no exception.
Let us know your thoughts about attempts to divorce the art from the artist and whether it is truly possible.