'Ignorant questions': Nobel winner Peter Handke refuses to address controversy

New literature laureate tells journalists ahead of prizegiving that it is the wrong moment to question his support for Slobodan Milošević

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.”

Svenska Akademiens presskonferens med Peter Handke slutade med en hätsk attack mot de närvarande journalisterna.https://t.co/q1O2ETYtML pic.twitter.com/wL7omEyev7

— DN Kultur (@DNKultur) December 6, 2019

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”.


Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
'Gross hypocrisy’: Nobel heavyweight to boycott Peter Handke ceremony
Peter Englund, former permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy and current member, refuses to celebrate the controversial 2019 literature laureate

Alison Flood

06, Dec, 2019 @12:08 PM

Article image
Protests grow as Peter Handke receives Nobel medal in Sweden
The literature laureateship, due to be presented in Stockholm on Tuesday, faces boycotts and widespread protest

Alison Flood

10, Dec, 2019 @5:00 PM

Article image
Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke win Nobel prizes in literature
The Swedish Academy announced laureates for 2018 and 2019, after scandal forced last year’s award to be postponed

Alison Flood

10, Oct, 2019 @11:03 AM

Article image
Nobel prize in literature: reactions after Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke win – as it happened
After the prize was postponed last year due to a sexual harassment scandal, two Nobel medals were awarded

Sian Cain, Alison Flood, Richard Lea and Hibaq Farah

10, Oct, 2019 @12:49 PM

Article image
Peter Handke hits out at criticism of Nobel win
Writer says he will not talk to media again after repeated questions about his politics

Philip Oltermann in Berlin

16, Oct, 2019 @1:05 PM

Article image
Peter Handke: an adversarial talent and controversial Nobel laureate
Since his 1966 debut The Hornets, the Austrian playwright and author has tested, inspired and shocked audiences

Hugo Hamilton

10, Oct, 2019 @5:36 PM

Article image
We were promised a less Eurocentric Nobel. We got two laureates from Europe | Maya Jaggi
Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke may be fine writers but their awards only add to suspicions over the prize’s limited horizons

Maya Jaggi

11, Oct, 2019 @3:16 PM

Article image
Nobel winner Peter Handke avoids genocide controversy in speech
Literature laureate accused of supporting Slobodan Milošević gives inaugural lecture

Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

07, Dec, 2019 @7:40 PM

Article image
Olga Tokarczuk: the dreadlocked feminist winner the Nobel needed
From her Man Booker International winning novel Flights to her William Blake-infused eco-thriller, you can’t go wrong reading this great Polish author

Claire Armitstead

10, Oct, 2019 @4:06 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Nobel winner Olga Tokarczuk: light amid the dark | Editorial
Editorial: The 2019 prize for literature has been mired in controversy. But that should not take away from the humanity and hope offered by the 2018 winner


13, Dec, 2019 @5:31 PM