Nobel Prizes for literature were awarded Thursday to two writers enmeshed in Europe’s social and political fault lines: a liberal Pole who has irked her country’s conservative government and an Austrian accused by many liberals of being an apologist for Serbian war crimes.
The rare double announcement — with the 2018 prize going to Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 award to Austria’s Peter Handke — came after no literature prize was awarded last year due to sex abuse allegations that rocked the Swedish Academy, which awards the literature prize.
The Swedish Academy called Handke “one of the most influential writers in Europe” and praised his work for exploring “the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”
But the 76-year-old author has long faced criticism for his vigorous defence of the Serbs during the 1990s wars that devastated the Balkans as Yugoslavia disintegrated. He spoke at the 2006 funeral of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who at the time was facing war crimes charges, calling him “a rather tragic man.”
Handke — who once called for the Nobel Prize to be abolished — said he was “astonished” to receive the literature award.
“I never thought they would choose me,” Handke told reporters outside his home in suburban Paris.
“It was very courageous by the Swedish Academy, this kind of decision,” he added. “These are good people.”
If Handke’s victory caused uncomfortable ripples, the choice of Tokarczuk was welcomed by liberal-minded authors and readers in her native Poland and beyond.
The 57-year-old novelist, known for her humanist themes and playful, subversive streak, has often irked Poland’s populists and conservatives. The academy said she was chosen for works that explore the “crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”
Already a major cultural figure in Poland, Tokarczuk has a growing international profile, especially since she won the Booker International prize in 2018 for the novel “Flights.”
She told Polish broadcaster TVN on Thursday that she was “terribly happy and proud” that her novels, which describe events in small towns in Poland “can be read as universal and can be important for people around the world.”
Handke has been a big name in European literature for decades, crafting works — starting with his first novel, “The Hornets,” in 1966 — that combine introspection and a provocative streak. One early play was called “Offending the Audience” and featured actors insulting theatregoers.
He has written screenplays, several of them for German director Wim Wenders, who also filmed Handke’s 1970 novel, “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick.”
He was praised by the Swedish Academy for writing powerfully about catastrophe, notably in “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” his 1972 autobiographical novel about his mother’s suicide.
But his staunch support of the Serbs during the 1990s Balkans wars has set him at odds with many other Western intellectuals.
In a 1996 essay, “Justice for Serbia,” Handke accused Western news media of always depicting Serbs as aggressors. He denied that genocide was committed when Bosnian Serb troops massacred some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the enclave of Srebrenica in 1995 and was an opponent of NATO’s airstrikes against Serbia for that country’s violent crackdown in Kosovo in the late 1990s. In an interview with Serbia’s state TV earlier this year, Handke said those behind the bombing “don’t belong to Europe and the planet Earth.”
Handke’s views led novelist Salman Rushdie in 1999 to call him a contender for “International Moron of the Year.” Rushdie’s publicist at Penguin Random House said Thursday that Rushdie stood by what he wrote in 1999.