Peter Handke, the Austrian author accused of Serbian nationalist sympathies, turned down a German literature prize on Thursday before politicians could revoke it.
Handke said in a letter to the mayor of Düsseldorf, Joachim Erwin, that he would not accept the western German city's Heinrich Heine award to save everybody involved from further embarrassment.
"I am writing to you to spare you and the world from the upcoming sitting of the city council in which they will decide not to give me the prize," Handke said in the letter. "Also to spare myself ... and above all to spare my work, which I do not want to become an endless target for the vulgar insults of party politicians."
He suggested that the council meeting be cancelled and its members sent into nature to breathe fresh air, "for example to have a picnic on the banks of the Rhine."
An ongoing controversy
Handke was named winner of the prize last month, but the Düsseldorf city council said last week that it would veto the jury's decision because of his eulogy for former Yugoslav president and alleged war criminal Slobodan Milosevic.
The writer attended Milosevic's funeral in March and lauded him as "a man who defended his people."
The speech also sparked a bitter row in France with the administrator of the Paris state theater Comedie Francaise, Marcel Bozonnet, canceling the 2007 season of Handke's play "Voyage to the Sonorous Land or the Art of Asking."
Bozonnet's decision was condemned in art circles in France, where Handke lives, and further afield as censorship. The critics included his German publishers, Suhrkamp, and his compatriot, Nobel literature laureate Elfriede Jelinek.
Handke said he was "disgusted" by the decision and defended himself as merely having sought to counter the dominant, one-sided "polemic" view of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.
A sense of deja-vu
But when it was announced he should receive the Heinrich Heine prize, the same debate about whether an artist's work can be separated from his political views resurged in Germany. Local politicians said honoring Handke was a slap in the face of those who suffered under Milosevic and vowed to deny him the prize, which was due to be awarded on Dec. 13.
The winner is chosen by an independent panel, but must be confirmed by Düsseldorf authorities who donate the prize money of 50,000 euros ($63,300).