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Nobel Prize ceremony marred over decision to give award to Peter Handke

Handke has courted controversy over his sympathy for the Serbs in the 1990s Yugoslav wars

Peter Handke poses in his garden after winning the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Chaville, near Paris, France. Reuters
Peter Handke poses in his garden after winning the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature, in Chaville, near Paris, France. Reuters

Boycotts and protests have cast a shadow over the Nobel literature prize ceremony following its “shameful and deplorable” decision to award the prize to Peter Handke, a writer accused of denying genocide in the Bosnian War.

The Austrian author’s outspoken support for late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who died while on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, and his minimising of Serbian war crimes in his book "A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia" have led to a massive backlash over the decision to give him the coveted award.

A number of nations refused to attend the event in Sweden and hundreds gathered to protest outside the venue.

Even organisers recognised the growing ill-feeling towards Handke and placed him in the furthest seat away from Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf at the head table.

The 77-year-old Austrian author was due to receive the prize on Tuesday at a formal ceremony in Stockholm with this year's other laureates.

The Academy honoured Handke "for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience."

It called him "one of the most influential writers in Europe after the Second World War."

The choice of Handke came as the Academy struggles to recover from a rape scandal that resulted in the 2018 prize being postponed and awarded this year to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk.

However, the Swedish Academy's pick for the 2019 prize, announced in October, triggered outrage in the Balkans and beyond because of Handke's support for Milosevic.

In 2006 he even spoke at Milosevic’s funeral.

It has led to one Nobel committee member resigning over the choice, one Academy member and ambassadors from Kosovo, Albania and Turkey boycotting the event.

UK charity Remembering Srebrenica, which promotes Srebrenica Memorial Day, tweeted: "This is a shameful and deplorable decision by the Nobel Committee who have promoted hatred, nationalism & genocide denial by awarding Peter Handke the 2019 Literature prize.

"This is an insult to the victims & survivors who have endured so much pain and suffering. Let us be clear that today should be long remembered as a shameful day in history."

Protests have taken place at the Norrmalmstorg Square in central Stockholm and outside the Stockholm Concert Hall where the prize ceremony was being held.

"He's allowed to write what he wants. The problem is that he is being honoured for his writings," the organiser of one of the protests, Teufika Sabanovic said.

"He defends war criminals, he qualifies genocide, he qualifies genocide deniers. Where is the limit for what is acceptable?"

Last Friday, Handke avoided questions on the Balkan wars, telling reporters: "I like literature, not opinions."

But in an interview with German weekly Die Zeit in late November, Handke defended his writings.

"Not one word I have written about Yugoslavia can be denounced, not a single one. It's literature," he said.

The head of the Swedish Academy's Nobel committee, Anders Olsson, has insisted Handke is "not a political writer".

Olsson responded to a letter from survivors of war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina: "It is obvious that we understand Peter Handke's literary work in very different ways."

But another committee member, Peter Englund, disagreed.

"I will not participate in Nobel Week this year.... Celebrating Peter Handke's Nobel Prize would be pure hypocrisy on my part," Englund told the Dagens Nyheter newspaper.

Ironically, in 2014 Handke called for the Nobel Literature Prize to be abolished, saying it conferred a "false canonisation" on the laureate.

Updated: December 10, 2019 07:50 PM

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