Peter Handke's Nobel literature prize win sparks outrage

Critics call him 'genocide denier'

By Bianca Britton, CNN
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

Austrian writer Peter Handke 

(CNN) - The decision to award Austrian writer Peter Handke a Nobel Prize in Literature has sparked widespread outrage, with critics calling it "shameful" that the award has been given to a "genocide denier."

Handke, who was born in 1942, has long been a controversial figure, attracting criticism for his outspoken positions on the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and for his close ties to former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, who was charged with war crimes associated with the conflict.

He notably made a speech at Milošević's funeral in 2006.

Handke defended himself in an interview in 2006, saying that Milosevic was "not a hero and a tragic human being" and that he "was a writer and not a judge."

Handke won the Nobel "for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience," according to the Swedish Academy, the cultural institution responsible for awarding it.

Kosovo's ambassador to the United States, Vlora Çitaku, tweeted that the award was a "scandalous decision," adding that "genocide deniers and Milošević apologists should not be celebrated."

"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?" she added. "We must not support or normalize those who spew hatred."

Meanwhile, Albania's Acting Foreign Minister, Gent Cakaj, said the decision was an "ignoble and shameful act."

"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," Cakaj tweeted.

In a statement published by PEN America, the organization that promotes literary freedom of expression said it was "dumbfounded" by the decision to honor a writer "who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide."

"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."

CNN has contacted the Swedish Academy for comment. The Nobel Foundation told CNN that it "never comments upon the Prize awarding institutions' independent selections of Nobel Prize laureates."

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."

Speaking after hearing of his win, Handke said he was "astonished."

"It was very courageous by the Swedish Academy, this kind of decision," he 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."

The Austrian writer was awarded the literary prize at the same time as Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was recognized for the 2018 award, which was postponed last year in the wake of a sexual and financial scandal that engulfed the academy.

Handke's debut novel "Die Hornissen" ("The Hornets") was published in 1966, and his 1970 work "Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter" ("The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty") was made into a film by celebrated German director Wim Wenders.

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