Nobel literature laureate Peter Handke brushed off questions about his support for the genocidal regime of Slobodan Milošević at a press conference on Friday, telling gathered journalists that it was not the moment to answer “ignorant” queries.
The Austrian author’s Nobel prize win in October has been widely criticised by writers and politicians over his stance on the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. A petition signed by almost 60,000 people is calling on the Nobel committee to revoke the award from the “apologist for the ‘butcher of Balkans’ Slobodan Milošević”. Handke spoke at Milošević’s funeral in 2006, calling him “a rather tragic man”.
The petition is due to be delivered by protesters on 10 December in Stockholm, when Handke is scheduled to receive his SEK9m (£743,000) prize.
After an awkward moment during which the room was induced to sing Happy Birthday to the author, Handke was asked at the press conference about the polarised response to his win. He responded: “This is a very long story. To tell this story here, I think it’s not the moment.”
Asked about the planned protests next week, Handke reminisced about a visit to Norway in 2014, when he won the Ibsen award. “There were a lot of protests when I went to the National Theatre of Oslo. A lot of shouting of ‘fascist, fascist’. I wanted to talk to these ladies and gentlemen but they didn’t want to talk to me,” he said. In his speech accepting that prize, he told his critics: “Go to hell, where you already are.”
Handke was asked by Peter Maass, a journalist at the Intercept, if he would say that the Srebrenica massacre, where almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed, had happened. Handke responded by talking about a letter he had been sent by an anonymous critic which he said was sent with a piece of toilet paper, “which had a calligraphy of shit”. After finishing, he told Maass: “I prefer toilet paper, an anonymous letter with toilet paper inside, to your empty and ignorant questions.”
Handke’s lack of straight answers is unlikely to put the controversy to rest, with the Nobel Foundation and the Swedish Academy also under fire over their choice. Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel committee, has told critics that “the ambition is to celebrate his extraordinary literary work, not the person. But earlier this week, two members of the external committee set up to oversee reforms in the controversy-prone Swedish Academy resigned, with one, journalist Gun-Britt Sundström, blaming her departure on Handke’s victory.
“The choice of 2019 laureate was not just a choice about a body of work, it has also been interpreted, both inside the academy and outside, as a defence of the stance that literature is above ‘politics’,” she told Dagens Nyheter. “That is not my ideology.”
Earlier on Friday, Peter Englund, the former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, said he would not attend the ceremonies because to celebrated Handke’s win “would be gross hypocrisy on my part”.
Jonas Eklöf, editor in chief of Swedish books magazine Vi Läser, was at the press conference. He said that the feeling among Swedish journalists covering the Nobel “has been fatigue, exhaustion and ... ‘Not again!’ A feeling that little has to do with literature right now.”
“There is still a lot of turbulence within the academy, with new boycotts and two out of five members leaving the Nobel committee in only the last week,” said Eklöf. “About today, what can I say: it was strange – especially the birthday song to Handke – and a little bit awkward, but not as uncomfortable as one might have expected. Feeling right now: just want to go home and have a glass of wine and read Flights.”
Flights is a novel by the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the 2018 Nobel prize for literature. Her win was announced on the same day as Handke’s, due to the postponement of last year’s prize. She is using her winnings to fund a foundation to support the work of writers and translators which will help “describe the reality in which xenophobic and nationalist sentiments are growing dangerously quickly”.