From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject Insular, Controversial Picks for Nobel Literature Laureates
Date October 18, 2019 12:00 AM
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[ Next year, says the reviewer, the Nobel Committee for Literature
should look beyond Europe. Despite the differences between awardees
Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke, they both reflect a divided Europe as
viewed only from within its borders.] [[link removed]]

PORTSIDE CULTURE

INSULAR, CONTROVERSIAL PICKS FOR NOBEL LITERATURE LAUREATES  
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Jennifer Wilson
October 14, 2019
The Nation
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_ Next year, says the reviewer, the Nobel Committee for Literature
should look beyond Europe. Despite the differences between awardees
Olga Tokarczuk and Peter Handke, they both reflect a divided Europe as
viewed only from within its borders. _

Olga Tokarczuk in 2019; Peter Handke in 2006, Photos: Wikimedia
Commons // Oublishers Weekly

 

After last year’s prize was postponed in the wake of a sexual
assault allegation and other controversies, the Nobel Committee for
Literature gave out two awards this year: one to Polish novelist Olga
Tokarczuk for its 2018 prize and the other to Austrian writer Peter
Handke for this year’s prize. Awarding Handke the prize prompted a
justified backlash, while awarding Tokarczuk received justified
praise, and the Internet was soon taking a “Good morning to Olga
Tokarczuk and to Olga Tokarczuk only” approach to the announcement.
This is understandable, given Tokarczuk’s fearless opposition to
far-right politics and Handke’s abject embrace of militarized
nationalism. Though the decision seems split, the dual choice of
Tokarczuk and Handke signals that the Nobel committee clearly wanted
to spotlight a single issue: nationalism in Europe. With a Europe
besieged by Brexit and xenophobia, the committee decided to make the
subject one of the defining issues of the moment. But by selecting two
European writers, the Swedish Academy, in refusing to look beyond
Europe, failed to recognize one of the fundamentals of literature:
that there is always more than one side to any story, especially when
that story is about borders.   

Tokarczuk is best known to English-speaking audiences for _Flights_,
her formally innovative novel about travel and migration that took
home the 2018 International Booker Prize. In Poland she is an
outspoken feminist and has made headlines for her principled criticism
of the country’s right-wing nationalist government at a time when
the far right has been resurgent across Europe. Her 2014 magnum
opus, _The Book of Jacob_, dealt frankly with Poland’s history of
anti-Semitism—a taboo subject for many Poles—and created such
fierce backlash from the country’s nationalists that Tokarczuk’s
publisher hired private security
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her. Her latest novel to be translated into English, _Drive Your
Plow Over the Bones of the Dead,_ was equally bold in its politics,
offering an eccentric murder mystery as a frame to critique both
patriarchy and meat eating. (Tokarczuk is an ardent
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A careful observer of her country’s stated ideals and simultaneously
a critic of its refusal to live up to them, she is precisely the kind
of writer the Nobel Committee for Literature often seeks out for its
award. As _The Guardian_ put it, Tokarczuk is “the dreadlocked
feminist winner the Nobel needed.”

Handke’s politics could not be more different from
Tokarczuk’s—so much so that the dual awards left many prize
watchers with a bit of whiplash. “Perhaps the Nobel Committee’s
main mission these days,” _The New Republic_’s Alex Shepherd
observed, “is not to diversify or evolve, but to troll.” Handke,
who is of Serbian heritage on his mother’s side, is best known as a
screenwriter, and he made his name in the 1980s for his collaborations
with German filmmaker Wim Wenders, in particular for their 1987 film
about German reunification, _The Wings of Desire_  (1987), which
was widely acclaimed
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But Handke has also long been a controversial figure in European
politics. In a 1996 essay, “A Journey to the Rivers,” he claimed
the Srebrenica massacre, which took the lives of more than 8,000
Bosniaks, was staged by Bosnian Muslims (survivors of the massacre
have called on the Nobel Committee to revoke 
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award), and in 2006 he spoke at the funeral of Slobodan Milošević,
showering praise on the man called “the Butcher of the Balkans.”
In response to Handke’s award, PEN America released a statement on
behalf of its president, Jennifer Egan, condemning the choice of
Handke. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership,
and widespread disinformation around the world,” it read, “the
literary community deserves better than this.”

Despite the differences between Tokarczuk and Handke, fundamentally,
they both reflect a divided Europe as viewed from within its borders.
As authors in their own right, there is, of course, no problem with
that. But if the Nobel committee is seeking to turn the conversation
toward the problems of Europe, specifically the problems it has with
xenophobia and far-right nationalism, then the committee needed to
look beyond the continent as well as within its borders.   

Before last week’s announcement, one writer who emerged as a
favorite was Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé. Throughout her career,
she pushed back against the assimilationist language policies imposed
under European colonialism by incorporating Creole in her novels. Last
December in Stockholm, she received the New Academy Prize, an award
arranged to replace the 2018 Nobel for Literature after news of its
postponement. She writes powerfully about how Creole identity was
forged through displacement and as a result always retained a
cosmopolitanism that the European metropoles often lacked. “Nobody
believed” that African slaves, indentured natives, and French
settlers “could have fused to create an original culture,” she
observed in_ The New York Review of Books_, and her novels capture
the original culture they created: a vexed cosmopolitanism that was
forged through displacement and that was both enriched and haunted by
the violence of the past. If that sounds familiar, it is because
history has made Condé’s a perspective that is relevant to the
challenges facing Europe. Her work, a model of cultural hybridity that
resists the kind of colonial amnesia that often
accompanies Europe’s liberal discourse around multiculturalism, is
a powerful reminder of why Europe can’t just read itself. 

_[Essayist Jennifer Wilson's work has appeared in The Nation, The New
York Times, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and other
venues.Reportage on the controversial award appeared widely, including
in The Guardian, Vox,  Electric Lit, and Publishers Weekly. A 2018
interview with Olga Tokarczuk appeared in The Guardian.] _

_Copyright c 2019 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be
reprinted without permission
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Distributed by PARS International Corp
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