Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke Win the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes in Literature

By Teodor Teofilov

The Swedish Academy announced the winners for both the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prizes for Literature on October 10.

The 2018 Prize had been delayed for a year following a sexual assault scandal that engulfed the Swedish Academy. It was awarded to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk, who won the Man Booker International Award for her novel Flights — a book that the Washington Post called “a beautifully fragmented look at man’s longing for permanence…. Ambitious and complex.”

She wasn’t a favorite to win the award but she is a welcome choice. Tokarczuk has long been considered one of the greatest Polish writers that is often overlooked in the literary scene. When her book debuted in the UK, Bookseller was thrilled that “she is probably one of the greatest living writers you have never heard of”.

Women have been historically underrepresented and Tokarczuk has become the 15th woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, out of 116 laureates. She won the 2018 Nobel literature prize “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopaedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”, the Swedish Academy said.

“I’m very happy, and I am proud that I am with Peter Handke, and that we, both of us, we are from central Europe,” said Tokarczuk to Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media. “It’s really very meaningful for me, this Nobel Prize is going to central Europe. I’m really, really very proud.”

The 2019 Prize went to Austrian author Peter Handke, and this choice is proving to be quite divisive and controversial. Handke is called “the world’s most prominent apologist” for the Serbian dictator and alleged war criminal Slobodan Milošević, who was charged with the Bosnian Genocide in 2001. Milošević passed away in 2006 in prison during his trial before a verdict was reached. Handke delivered a speech at Milošević’s funeral. He has spoken out in favor of Milošević’s regime previously, claiming that the dictator was misrepresented in the Western media. Most infamously he purported that the massacres of Bosnian Muslim men and boys by Serbian troops were staged by the Muslims themselves.

The decision to award Hendke by the Swedish Academy has been baffling for many observers for lauding such a notorious figure, after announcing that it intends to move away from the “male-orientated” and “Eurocentric” perspective.

PEN America, a free speech organization, issued a statement that formally condemned the Nobel Committee’s decision.

“PEN America does not generally comment on other institutions’ literary awards. We recognize that these decisions are subjective and that the criteria are not uniform. However, today’s announcement of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature to Peter Handke must be an exception,” said PEN America president and Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan. “We reject the decision that a writer who has persistently called into question thoroughly documented war crimes deserves to be celebrated for his ‘linguistic ingenuity.’ At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this. We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”

Kosovo’s ambassador to the US, Vlora Citaku, and the Acting Foreign Minister of Albania, Gent Cakaj have also tweeted against the choice.

“Have we become so numb to racism, so emotionally desensitized to violence, so comfortable with appeasement that we can overlook one’s subscription and service to the twisted agenda of a genocidal maniac?” tweeted Citaku.

“As a passionate believer in literature’s eternal beauty and power to enrich human experience and as a victim of ethnic cleansing and genocide, I’m appalled by the decision to award the Nobel Prize in literature to a genocide denier. What an ignoble and shameful act we are witnessing in 2019!” tweeted Cakaj.

Mats Malm, the Swedish Academy’s permanent secretary, told The New York Times that the committee chose on a literary and aesthetic basis and that “it’s not the academy’s mandate to balance literary quality against political considerations.”

“It was very courageous by the Swedish Academy, this kind of decision,” Hendke told reporters, according to Reuters. “I feel a strange kind of freedom, I don’t know, a freedom, which is not the truth, as if I were innocent.”

By awarding the prizes to two renowned European authors, the academy has seemed to brush off the criticism that the prize is too Western and Eurocentric — since the awards inception most of the laureates have been European and English-language authors.

You can watch the announcement ceremony below.

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