One afternoon in 2003, I was with a colleague at a coffee shop in a small town between Prijedor and Sanski Most in Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia Herzegovina. We were talking to five men who had been taken away to a Serb militia-run concentration camp near Manjača during the Balkan wars, which had ended but the wounds of which were still fresh.

The men talked in hushed tones, looking around furtively, pointing at a few men who were staring at us. We moved to a quieter area, where a woman joined us. She kept her eyes fixed to the ground, talking softly about how they had left their homes after their neighbours warned them.

“Why did you have to leave? Did they threaten you?" I asked.

“What would you do if someone came with guns to your house and told you to leave?" she replied.

She, and the men beside her, were Bosnian Muslims. Some of their neighbours were Croats, others Serbs. The Muslims were taken away to camps. The most notorious was in Srebrenica, which Dutch peacekeepers were meant to protect. However, 8,000 men and boys would get murdered there in 1995 by the Bosnian Serb Army under the command of Ratko Mladić. Srebrenica was at the other end of the country, but there were similar heinous stories everywhere. We were told there were bodies buried in a Prijedor mine we visited later. International organizations were collecting evidence painstakingly, doing DNA testing and matching bones, offering the remains to survivors, allowing their agony some closure.

Many journalists, historians, academics, diplomats, prosecutors, authors, human rights experts, and lawyers were collecting testimonies, as were we. Yet, a thriving cottage industry denied the killings, or their scale, with some asserting that both sides were cruel.

Denying grave war crimes aggravates the victims’ pain. It is tragic when someone expected to be sensitive to the human condition believes lies. It is worse when the world’s best-known prize for literature chooses to honour such a writer, essentially arguing that art is for its own sake, that art alone matters, and that the politics and philosophy of the artist aren’t relevant. So it is that we get the Nobel Prize going to Peter Handke.

Whether Handke’s writing is superior to the works of Margaret Atwood, Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, or David Grossman, none of whom has won the Nobel yet, is a matter of individual taste. But is Handke worthy of the prize, which Alfred Nobel’s will decreed should go to “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction"(emphasis added)?

Handke’s works include the acclaimed The Goalie’s Anxiety At The Penalty Kick, and he has collaborated with the German film-maker Wim Wenders on his masterpiece, Wings Of Desire. Handke has won other prizes, including Norway’s Ibsen Prize. But he has also written A Journey To The Rivers: Justice For Serbia (1996), published in German after a short visit to the Balkans, written within a year of the Srebrenica massacre. There, he wrote of the purity of Serb ethnicity and argued that true Europe—whatever that means—existed only in Serbia. He also denied the massacres, claiming that Serbs were victims, not aggressors.

Delusions can lead one to strange alleys, confusing victims and perpetrators. It is worse if the delusion persists. Handke persisted, showering praise on Slobodan Milošević. In a 1999 column, Rushdie had named Handke the runner-up for the title “international moron of the year" for his “series of impassioned apologias for the genocidal regime" of Milošević.

Milošević reciprocated in style. He awarded Handke the Order of the Serbian Knight. Even after Milošević was overthrown and brought before the Hague tribunal, Handke kept up his support for him. Milošević asked Handke to be a witness at his trial, but Handke had the good sense to decline, though he did attend the trial. After Milošević died in 2006, Handke delivered a eulogy at the funeral. In the years since, Handke has not distanced himself from what was hardly youthful exuberance, nor expressed an apology to the real victims of the Balkan wars.

As the gifted Bosnian-American novelist Aleksandar Hemon puts it, “Mr. Handke’s immoral delusions could perhaps be related to his literary aesthetics, to his suspicion of language and its ability to represent truth, which ultimately leads to a position that everything is equally true, or untrue. [His] politics irreversibly invalidated his aesthetics, his worship of Milošević invalidated his ethics. In the midst of a global epidemic of Islamophobia and white nationalism, [the prize] has validated an aesthetic untroubled by decency...."

Handke has the right to believe in and write his version of truth, and he should certainly not be banned. But it is disgraceful that the Swedish Academy has so miserably misunderstood what Nobel may have meant by “an ideal direction", and honoured a writer who exemplifies a culture of lies. It has elevated fake news to the same level as truth—a perverse triumph of fiction.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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