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Nobel Choice For Literature Plunges Swedish Academy Back Into Controversy

Austrian author and 2019 Nobel prizewinner Peter Handke at the funeral of late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2006.
Austrian author and 2019 Nobel prizewinner Peter Handke at the funeral of late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2006.

A year after a sex abuse scandal forced the Nobel Committee of the Swedish Academy to postpone awarding its prestigious literature prize, members were hoping to avoid controversy when awarding this year's honor.

Well, there's always next year.

The 18-member academy announced on October 10 that the prize for 2019 had been awarded to Austrian author Peter Handke.

Many know the 76-year-old's works such as The Goalie's Anxiety At The Penalty Kick and the screenplay Wings Of Desire, both of which ended up as films directed by longtime friend Wim Wenders.

But judging by the reaction to his victory, many more know him for his relationship with unsavory former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Shortly after the announcement from Stockholm, social media exploded with a stream of expletives denouncing the academy and Handke.

At issue is the Austrian's role at the 2006 funeral of Milosevic.

Handke delivered a eulogy in honor of the president, who died while being tried at the UN War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague for genocide and other war crimes committed during the conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

"This is a disgrace. It's the same as if a writer who glorified Hitler got the Nobel prize for literature," Adriatik Kelmendi, a journalist from Kosovo, said in a post on Facebook.

Born in southern Austria to a German father and an ethnic Slovenian mother, Handke has always been interested in Yugoslavia and its people.

In the 1990s, he was seen as a vocal defender of Serbs as Yugoslavia broke apart in a bloody civil war that often pitted neighbors against each other.

Handke gained further notoriety when he compared Serbs to the Jews under the Nazis. Even though he later took back the comments, they were never forgotten.

"Sometimes I would like to be a Serbian Orthodox monk fighting [to keep] Kosovo," he once said.

'Butcher Of The Balkans'

Vlora Citaku, Kosovo's ambassador to Washington, called the decision to award Handke the prize "preposterous and shameful," questioning how the academy could choose "a man who glorified Milosevic, aka the 'Butcher of the Balkans.'"

"In a world full of brilliant writers, the Nobel committee chooses to reward a propagator of ethnic hatred & violence," she said in a tweet.

"Have we become so numb to racism, so emotionally desensitized to violence, so comfortable with appeasement that we can overlook one's subscription & service to the twisted agenda of a genocidal maniac?" she added.

Some critics of the prizewinner noted that he had to refuse the last major award he won, the Heinrich Heine Prize in 2006, because of the furor over his eulogizing of Milosevic.

Even Handke himself seemed indifferent to the lure of a Nobel, calling for it to be abolished -- saying in 2014 that it was a "false canonization" of literature.

"I haven't read Handke. He may be the greatest writer there is, but you know what? I don't care! I thought that the Nobel prize was about much more than just good writing but most importantly, I didn't expect for it to endorse fascist views," activist Gresa Hasa wrote as part of a series of tweets that ended with a note on where she believes Handke should store the award.

The Swedish Academy in Stockholm made changes to its panel, bringing in several new members this year after last year's controversy, which included alleged breaches of conflict-of-interest rules and a sexual assault case.

The husband of academy member Katarina Frostenson was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison after being convicted of rape. Frostenson has left the academy.

In awarding the 2018 prize at the same October 10 ceremony, the academy chose Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, a vegetarian and environmentalist who seems to be the antithesis of Handke.

While a lot of the reaction was negative, some took a more measured view, noting that an author's works should be the basis for evaluating the award, not their politics.

"Handke is a classical, controversial, asocial, reductivist, who in his biography has the fact he used to support Slobodan Milosevic, just like Harold Pinter, who also had won the Nobel Prize," said Bosnian writer and publicist Ahmed Buric.

"Political views do not play an important role when it comes to those things. Literature criteria should be above the politics," he added.