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Handke's Nobel flattery falls flat

Norbert-Mappes-Niediek - t Korrespondent mehrerer deutschsprachiger Zeitungen in Südosteuropa
Norbert Mappes-Niediek
December 8, 2019

In his Nobel lecture, author Peter Handke focused on the inconsequential, avoiding provocative or important topics. But his charm and support for "alternative facts" were not convincing, says Norbert Mappes-Niedeck.

Peter Handke speak in Stockholm
Image: picture-alliance/TT NYHETSBYRÅN

He made no mention of Serbia. Why should he have? In his Nobel lecture, Austrian writer Peter Handke spoke about the things that are important to him. What the public thought was important over the past few weeks — Handke's controversial stance on the wars in the former Yugoslavia and his support for Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic — was not one of those things. The author's focus wasn't on the big tragedies, the major events — instead, it was directed at the small, the inconspicuous, the unnoticed.

In his German-language lecture, in which he discussed the role of memories and his mother's stories in his work, Handke focused on the little flowers at the edge of the path and the bird in the branches. War, tanks rolling on the asphalt, a brown bullet pouch: for the Nobel laureate, none of that is reality. Reality, instead, is the azurite blue of his Carinthian homeland.

Read more: Nobel laureate Peter Handke's critics and supporters

Norbert-Mappes-Niediek - t Korrespondent mehrerer deutschsprachiger Zeitungen in Südosteuropa
Norbert Mappes-Niediek is a correspondent for southeast EuropeImage: L. Spuma

Poet has the last word

The 77-year-old wasn't provocative in Saturday's lecture in Stockholm. But his eccentric performance, a well-worded counterpoint to the eloquent words of politicians and journalists, didn't bring about any reconciliation either.

Without any of the condemnation or polemicizing in which he often indulges, Handke used the opportunity provided by the Swedish Academy to present his literary agenda to an influential audience.

Everything can exalt us, was his message; everywhere there are small, unremarkable things that bring us into contact with the essential, the divine. That which we all take for granted can become something quite different when it has once made its way into literature.

That goes for literally anything, as he would point out, even for 7,000 to 8,000 dead in Srebrenica. The world can fight about what is truth and what is lies, he said, but the poet always has the last word. Using the example of war — a brutal incursion into our reality if ever there was one — Handke was able to explain how comprehensive he means this claim to be.

Read more: Peter Handke: No more interviews?

Ignoring the debate

The debates of the past few weeks have moved on from what really happened in Kosovo and Bosnia, about how many people were killed and who was to blame. Instead, the issue up for discussion was how much right an author has to his or her own truth.

Such questions are now a regular source of contention worlds away from the Swedish Academy — on Facebook and Twitter, for example, or between US President Donald Trump's press secretary and The New York Times. What seems to be timeless fits our times perfectly — what a coincidence.

Handke's Nobel Prize in literature was a significant win on points for the proponents of "alternative facts," where he has now created a community for himself. He calls them "my readers." In fact, this community is much bigger, and reading is not really one of its passions. But in his speech on Saturday, Handke pandered precisely to the tastes of this extremely conservative following.

Flattery doesn't help

During the event, broadcast live online, Catholics in attendance were no doubt pleased to hear long quotes from the Litany of Loreto, a droning poem recited during processions. The fact that the quotes were all in Slovenian — Handke's mother's native tongue — was likely to appeal to his friends in the former Yugoslavia.

There was also a nod to the Swedes with a poem by their Nobel laureate, Tomas Transtromer, read aloud in Swedish. Those who aren't poetry fans, said Handke, could at least appreciate the experience and thus dissociate themselves from the din of the vulgar mob. An author who has so often insulted the public has now taken to flattering it.

Those who still speak of their wartime experiences, of Serbia and Bosnia, are "killjoys," he said. "Haven't you finished with your war?" the poet called out encouragingly, advising the wars' victims to let the dead be dead and to display the "peace of the survivors."

This well-meant piece of advice is unlikely to be followed. Literature's capacity to help people wasn't on show in Stockholm this weekend, but 20 years ago in Blace, a town near the current North Macedonia-Kosovo border where a 100,000 displaced people ended up in 1999. The largest crowds of refugees weren't found where the food was being distributed, but at the tent where each of them could tell their story of escape. There, the focus was on the truth.

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