The Guardian

A Nobel prize that dishonours the victims of genocide

The Guardian logo The Guardian 12/10/2019 21:00:29 Ed Vulliamy
a man wearing a suit and tie: Peter Handke poses outside his home near Paris after winning the Nobel prize for literature. © EPAPeter Handke poses outside his home near Paris after winning the Nobel prize for literature.

So, the highest award in literature goes to a writer who denies the existence of concentration camps that it was my accursed honour to find in Bosnia in 1992, who lauded Slobodan Milosevic, mastermind of the hurricane of violence of which they were part, and contests the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995.

Peter Handke is an apologist for genocide within living memory, at the heart of Europe. He says one thing, while earth across the Balkans gives up its mass graves. While Handke proffers his views, the bones are facts.

Video: Peter Handke "astonished" and "moved" by Nobel literature prize (Agence France-Presse)

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Does this matter? Literature must exist independent of politics; the Nobel prize could be awarded regardless of morals or ideology. But that's not what the prize sets out to be or do. It is awarded, according to the will of Alfred Nobel, for outstanding work "en idealisk riktning" - in an ideal direction or direction of an ideal. 

The prize does have moral, as well as literary, pretensions: Seamus Heaney won it in 1995 for work of "lyrical beauty and ethical depth". Ezra Pound was among the greatest poets of the past century, but never won the prize, possibly because of his fascism and hideous antisemitism.

Handke was not just expressing his opinion in his book A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia and his homily at Milosevic's funeral - he went out of his way to give credence to mass murder and, in this context, as importantly, to lies.

a group of people sitting on a rock: International criminal tribunal investigators at a mass grave near the village of Pilica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1996, a year after the Srebrenica massacre. Photograph: Staton R. Winter/AP © APInternational criminal tribunal investigators at a mass grave near the village of Pilica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1996, a year after the Srebrenica massacre. Photograph: Staton R. Winter/AP He offered to testify for Milosevic at The Hague; had he done so, we might have met - on opposite sides. The thing about our reporting in Bosnia is that, as another controversial Nobel laureate (for peace, in 1973) Henry Kissinger said: "It has the added virtue of being true."

Truth is endangered these days. Untrue "facts" are easily manufactured and spread. Politicians blur and manipulate the difference between truth and lies. Handke's equation of Srebrenica with lesser outrages by the Bosnian army is like Donald Trump blaming "all sides" for Charlottesville and finding "very fine people" among the neo-Nazis. In fact, the current political zeitgeist of refusal to live with "the other" can be seen to have roots in the post-Yugoslav carnage.

There's something weird about Bosnia: why doesn't it matter to a public figure's life that they endorsed or denied the slaughter? Harold Pinter won the Nobel in 2005 having joined the "Free Milosevic" campaign. Noam Chomsky is revered, for all his swerving and equivocating over the camps and Srebrenica.

Austrian author Peter Handke addresses the media, following the announcement he won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Chaville, near Paris, France October 10, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann © ReutersAustrian author Peter Handke addresses the media, following the announcement he won the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Chaville, near Paris, France October 10, 2019. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann I wonder whether these people, like Handke, consider their searing impact on survivors and bereaved. When I asked Dr Idriz Merdzanic, who tried to tend to tortured men and violated women in Trnopolje camp about the deniers, he said: "It's hard enough to find words to describe the camps and what happened to us, but I have no words to describe what these people do."

Anyone concerned with preserving some narrative in accordance with what happened in Bosnia can only react to this award with bitter exhaustion, a sense that those efforts were in vain.

For what it's worth, my understanding of journalism is that you walk a straight line and report what's true. This turns out to be not especially lucrative and harder than it should be. Literature operates to other standards - as it should - yet this outrage from the ivory tower proceeds from obfuscation to rewriting history. They won, we lost; lies won, truth lost.

Gallery: The 2019 Nobel Prize winners (Reuters)

So what's the point? Why bother? Against Handke, I'll pitch the writer whose place on the podium in Stockholm in 1957 he stains: Albert Camus.

Camus's magnificent acceptance speech was about how the duty of a writer is to do more than write, but also testify to truth. Ten years earlier, Camus published his masterpiece La peste, whose hero, Dr Rieux, adheres to a complex notion of pointless endeavour: one fights to save the life of an infected child although it is doomed - fight the plague, because that's the right thing to do.

Although, in this value-free present, to cite Handke's predecessor of 2016, Bob Dylan: "At times I think there are no words/ But these to say what's true./ And there are no truths outside the Gates of Eden."

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13. lokakuuta 2019 0:00:29 Categories: Evening Standard The Guardian

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