Peter Handke and the myopia of language

October 27, 2019

The Nobel Prize in Literature has unleashed an uproar all over the world

Peter Handke and the myopia of language

If history is to serve as a gauge, the Swedish Academy’s quest for "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction" that merits the Nobel Prize in Literature is often steered by less than noble reasons. The esteemed Nobel committee has repeatedly been accused of pursuing a myopic, misguided interpretation of an "ideal direction" in literature.

In an age where an artist’s work cannot be detached from his or her political persuasions, the accusations of myopia and poor judgment run deeper than they did before. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s contentious friendship with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro sparked controversy when he won the award in 1982, the sheer extent of indignation shown over Austrian writer and genocide apologist Peter Handke bagging the prestigious literary prize should come as no surprise.

But there is a difference between Garcia Marquez and Handke. The former’s friendship with ‘El Caballo’ was spared the dangers of hero worship. Garcia Marquez may have thrown his weight behind the Cuban revolution, but he was less forgiving when it came to other aspects of governance under Castro.

Unlike Garcia Marquez, Handke struggled to be objective about his favoured statesman. The Austrian writer brazenly defended Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s actions during the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Handke denied the genocide and war crimes orchestrated by the Serbs - especially the July 1995 massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica. If his views are anything to go by, the Sarajevo Muslims were the ones who "regularly massacred themselves and then blamed the Serbs" - an interpretation that defies credible historical accounts.

The Nobel laureate eulogised the Serbian dictator when he died in his prison cell at The Hague while facing trial for his role in the Bosnian genocide. Though there are no video records of Handke’s eulogy, reliable accounts of the funeral service suggest that the avowed "butcher of the Balkans" received a generous sendoff from the Austrian writer that verged on an apologia.

Be that as it may, literary awards recognise aesthetics and apparently have little to do with where a writer stands on the political spectrum. Days after he won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature, Handke made a rather gruff attempt to remind his detractors of this fact. He criticised journalists for placing too much emphasis on his stance on the Yugoslav wars and overlooking the artistic merit of his work. At first glance, this appears to be a reasonable request as not all of his books are rooted in sympathy for Serbia’s role in the conflict in Bosnia. But even the beauty of Handke’s body of work fails to cleanse the ugliness of his beliefs.

Before he embarked on a mission to reject the systematic atrocities committed by Serbia during the Balkan conflict, Handke was writing poignant works like Slow Homecoming. It has been described as "a novel of self-questioning" - which, in light of the flak he received in the 1990s, appears to be an incongruous label for Handke’s work. In his novella The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, Handke examines the inner turmoil of erstwhile soccer goalkeeper Joseph Bloch as he loses his job at a construction site, develops an interest in a cashier at a cinema and then murders her. Though Handke’s observations are filtered through an aloofness that can be expected of a third-person narrative, it never fails to investigate the recesses of Bloch’s mind.

The Nobel committee has shown us that an emphasis on artistic merit alone is the ‘ideal direction’ for an outstanding literary work to earn the coveted prize.

Even a cursory glimpse at these texts makes us wonder what propelled the Austrian author to unceremoniously shift gears and produce a work like A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia. How could Handke write a travelogue that portrays Serbia as the victim of the Yugoslav wars? Some believe that Journey to the Rivers doesn’t represent a radical departure from the themes that the writer has explored in the past. Handke believes language is a means of mediating human experiences and proves to be an ineffectual tool if it’s suffused with hatred.

The Austrian writer was deeply displeased that the Yugoslav wars, which he believed was a polarising conflict, had been depicted through the "charged language" used by Western journalists. Incidentally, the Swedish Academy had recognised Handke’s ability to "explore the periphery and specificity of human experience" through linguistic ingenuity. Handke’s ill-conceived desire to "deconflict language" so it can represent a diverse spectrum of experiences may have encouraged him to write Journey to the Rivers. But the narrative is laced with a seemingly subjective interpretation of the Balkan conflict.

It becomes evident from the outset that Journey to the Rivers is fuelled by a blinkered view of Serbia’s involvement in the conflict. If history textbooks are to be believed, Milosevic harboured an ambition to create ‘Greater Serbia’ and viewed the dismantling of Yugoslavia as a threat to this aspiration. As a result, he sanctioned a series of genocidal operations against Bosnian Muslims. Conventional wisdom would have us believe Milosevic’s financial and military backing for a vicious campaign of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. The massacre at Srebrenica, though denied by some elements in Serbia, remains widely documented in reportage and historical text.

Therefore, Handke’s unsubstantiated claim that the Serbs were the true victims of the Yugoslav wars comes across as suspiciously one-sided. Driven by the need to disprove the fact that the Serbs had engaged in violence, Handke hedges the truth by resorting to a selective interpretation of history. He doesn’t shy away from offering senseless justifications for the actions of the Serbs. According to the Austrian author, the Serbs were provoked to commit war crimes. In an article published in a French newspaper soon after the book was published, Handke states that not all concentration camps in Bosnia belonged to the Serbs, which is little more than an attempt to blame the victims.

Journey to the Rivers also condemns the Western media for ‘shamelessly’ demonising the Serbs with its biased depiction of the Balkan conflict. Handke’s narrative portrays Germany as a villain for prematurely recognising the independence of Croatia and Slovenia.

At no point in the book does Handke offer a nuanced approach to Serbia’s involvement in war crimes and genocide. More often than not, the author’s insights and observations are motivated by interactions with Milosevic’s supporters rather than his fiercest critics who eventually pushed the Serbian dictator towards his downfall. Had Handke produced a more balanced narrative, his search for moral equivalence on a divisive issue could have been justified as an attempt to "finally listen to each other instead of screaming and barking in two enemy camps". Instead, Handke doesn’t listen to all those Bosnian Muslims who were at the receiving end of systematic atrocities by the Serbs and is comfortable with a myopic representation of the truth. Journey to the Rivers comes through as an attempt to use language to mediate a polarising conflict in favour of the aggressor while those at the peripheries of this experience are conveniently ignored.

In 2014, Handke called for the Nobel Prize in Literature to be abolished for encouraging the "false canonisation of literature". That the Austrian writer won the prize five years later seems rather ironic. But the esteemed Nobel committee has sent a clear message through its decision. The Swedish Academy has shown us that an emphasis on artistic merit alone is the ‘ideal direction’ for an outstanding literary work to earn the coveted prize. Had the committees for other literary awards used a similar benchmark to recognise creative genius, maybe the decision to withdraw the Nelly Sachs Prize from Kamila Shamsie for supporting pro-Palestinian activism could have been avoided.

Peter Handke and the myopia of language