Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, a harsh critic of her country’s right wing government, and Austrian writer Peter Handke, above, a staunch supporter of late Serbian leader and suspected war criminal Slobodan Milosevic,were named winners of Nobel Prize in Literature in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Anders Olsson, a member of the revamped Swedish Academy and chair of the Nobel Committee, said it is a literary prize, not a political one, when asked why Handke was named Nobel laureate despite his controversial views on Balkan wars and friendship with Milosevic.
The Swedish Academy and its newly formed Nobel committee took extra care in naming the winners as they wanted to clean up the mess created by a sex scandal that led to suspension of the announcement of laureate last year.
Handke never expected the prize
Handke had angered many by consistently opposing NATO’s airstrikes against Serbia in the 1990s. Along with 2005 Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, he had signed an artists’ appeal in defence of Milosevic.
In an interview, he once said Milosevic was a tragic human being and not a hero.
Handke never expected to win Nobel Prize after attending Milosevic’s war crimes trial and eulogising him at his funeral.
No wonder he was speechless for a moment when Olsson broke the good news to him on Thursday. He then pulled himself together and asked Olsson in German whether what he just heard was true.
The honour for Handke proves that Nobel Prize for Literature is not linked to political correctness.
‘Honour to literature from Central Europe’
Tokarczuk too had upset conservative governments and faced death threats for writing against anti-semitism.
The Polish writer was surprised when she learned of her win while on her way to attend a literary function.
The truth is yet to sink in, she told Polish newspaperGazeta Wyborcza. Tokarczuk said she was pleased to learn Handke too received the Nobel Prize. Swedish Academy has honoured the literature from Central Europe, she added.
The academy hailed Tokarczuk’s works for their “narrative imagination” and Handke’s writings for their linguistic ingenuity.
With great artistry, Handke explored the periphery of human experience and the unseen places, Olssonsaid.
The academy described Handke as one of the most influential writers in Europe after World War II. It noted that he can write powerfully about catastrophe, like in the novel A Sorrow beyond Dreams about his mother’s suicide.
The academy praised his skills to charge even the “smallest of details in everyday experience with explosive significance” and evoke a strong adventurous spirit and nostalgia in his works.
Handke paid special attention to landscapes and the material presence of the world. Cinema and painting inspired him in this.
Face of new Polish literature
Tokarczuk’s first work The Journey of the Book-People (1993) in search of a mysterious book in the Pyrenees set in 17th-century France and Spain won the Polish Publisher’s Prize for a debut novel.
The ground-breaking novel Primeval and Other Times (1996) established Tokarczuk as one of the leading Polish writers. It chronicles a Polish family’s story through three generations from 1914 to the beginnings of Solidarity movement in 1980.
The academy describes the novel as an example of new Polish literature marked by imagination and artistic sophistication. The author does not make any moral judgement or present her work as the conscience of the nation.
In E.E., the author, who studied psychology at the University of Warsaw, enters the psychic depths of a young woman who develops telepathic abilities.The work has been inspired by psychoanalyst Carl Jung.
The academy was impressed by Tokarczuk’s historical novelThe Books of Jacob (2014) which shows a rare talent to represent a case almost beyond human understanding.
This deeply researched work on Jewish mysticism and other subjects chronicles the life of the 18th century sectarian leader Jacob Frank and reveals a little known chapter in European history.
Tokarczuk’s novel Flights won her Booker International Prize in 2018.She is the first Polish writer to win a Booker prize.
While congratulating her, Poland’s Culture Minister Piotr Glinski said he will read all her works one by one. Earlier this week, he said he had not finished any of her works.
Tokarczuk is the 15th woman to win the Nobel literature prize.
From literature to psychology
Tokarczuk, 57, was born in 1962 in Sulechow, Poland.
Her parents were teachers and her father was also a school librarian. He knew Tokarczuk had a passion for literature and gave her some of the best classics to read.
However, she studied psychology, instead of literature, at the University of Warsaw. After graduation, she worked as a psychotherapist in Wrocław and Wałbrzych.
However, when Tokarczuk gained popularity as a writer, she moved to Nowa Ruda and devoted herself to writing.
Tokarczuk divides her time between Wrocław and Krajanów near Nowa Ruda in the Central Sudetes.
The landscape and culture of this area are mirrored in her works.
Handke, 76, was born in 1942 in southern Austria’s Carinthia province to a German father and a Slovenian mother. Handke’s Slovenian origins are reflected in his work Repetition.
He spent part of his childhood living in Berlin and attended a Catholic boarding school in Klagenfurt in 1954, where he published his first writings in the school newspaper.
He began law studies at the University of Graz in 1961, but gave up law school a few years later when his first novel The Hornets was published.
He has been living in Chaville, France, since 1990.