The Norwegian Yugoslavia-Syndrome

IbsenHandkeThis article originally appeared in Norwegian on the website of VG Nyheter as a part of the debate on the controversial decision to award Peter Handke The Ibsen Award. Written by Balkan-expert and senior adviser to The Norwegian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights; Aage Borchgrevink This article has been translated and published with the author´s permission. 

In its decision the jury shies away from the problematic aspects of choosing Handke and concentrates on his work. The jury has also avoided what they call “the polemic” I asked for a debate on the award. Is it only in Norway that it´s so easy to differentiate between the aesthetic and the political?

20 years ago the wars in the former Yugoslavia created; The Bosnia-generation: Intellectuals who wanted intervention in case of serious crimes. In Norway you saw very little of that. Few Norwegian newsrooms covered the war thoroughly and the premise of interpretation was left to those Norwegians who themselves were involved. Lessons of the genocide were filtered away.

Bosnia was about the international community’s role. “While impartiality and neutrality are hailed as virtues in diplomacy, as the complexity and ambiguity makes it purely intellectual,” wrote philosopher Arne Johan Vetlesen, “ Then are all these virtues to be considered – at least potential – vices in an actual situation where genocide is the phenomenon we are facing and have a responsibility to decide”

Vetlesen wrote this in his attempt to debate Bosnia with UN´s former peace negotiator Thorvald Stoltenberg. There are many reasons why Stoltenberg is one of the country´s most respected statesmen, that is perhaps why so few have talked about how controversial his effort in Bosnia really was. Critique of Stoltenberg has usually been referred to the debate slits in niche media; Stoltenberg has rarely responded.

«Appeasement» was the word Nobel Prize winner Kofi Annan used to describe Stoltenberg’s peace negotiations, Stoltenberg’s view of the war, that all parties were equally at fault and that Serbs were made scape goats is not only controversial but also flies in the face of any serious historical account. Verdicts rendered at the War Crimes tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) showed that the clear majority of the crimes were committed by the Serb side.

Yet Stoltenberg has been a chief witness in the description of the Bosnian War, especially at NRK ( Norwegian State Television)  which has created two uncritical documentary projects about Stoltenberg , The Peace Warrior and The Balkans in the blood. Stoltenberg was also expert in NRK Brennpunkt revisionist documentary on Srebrenica in 2011, A Town Betrayed, (Izdani Grad) The film was the first program to be brought down in both the Press Complaints Commission ( PFU ) and the Investigation Committee , the Swedish equivalent of PFU.

Another factor which has paved the way for Handke´s Ibsen Award is the cultural elite´s instinctive moral compass. When tens of thousands were being slaughtered during the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia during the beginning of the 90s there were few protests and petitions. It was only after NATO attacked Yugoslavia during the spring of 1999 that the cultural elite rose up in protest, not against the Serb forces and their ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, but against the NATO-operation to stop the abuses. To many Norwegian “opponents of war” the wars in the Balkans only became visible once the United States intervened.

Handke defined the problem of Yugoslavia in the language, and protests against the black and white image of the conflict he thinks he sees in the media. Here he´s one the same page with literature professor Arild Linneberg´s critically acclaimed book; 13 Boring Essays about War and Literature, from 2003. Handke is also defended by his publisher Karl Ove Knausgård who writes: “If you read what Handke actually said at Milosevic´s funeral and what he has written about Serbia it´s about nuancing the one sidedness of the western media coverage of the conflict”

And nuance is always good right? Doubt is our product, gentlemen, said an executive in the tobacco industry to the marketing department. And just like the tobacco industry´s counter attack against science was about taking advantage of the medias estimable desire for balance in their columns, in order to sow doubt and prevent action, so were Slobodan Milosevic´s efforts to nuance the image of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Milosevic complained in 1999 that Western journalists depicted the wars as black and white, and wanted just like Arlid Linneberg more ambiguous shades of gray…

Poetic ambiguity can also serve the interests of power. There is no moral snow white point outside of politics, not even for playwrights. We are all intertwined, the language is tainted. Handke or Knausgård should perhaps be less concerned about ”complexity and ambiguity” per se, and more concerned with judicial reviews. Although all sides committed crimes in Bosnia, one cannot nuance statistics from the ICTY without getting into bad company.

Maybe this isn´t that new for artists? Hamsun, Celine, Mishima, Ezra Pound: Many great artists have been fascists. Their writing lives on. But I’m not sure if Ibsen himself would appreciate getting into this company, and he would hardly appreciate the jury´s attempt to kill off the debate. The Ibsen Award is also created by the Norwegian government, and although the jury is independent, giving him the award represents an official Norwegian tribute to Peter Handke.

The moral juxtaposition of the victim and the perpetrator and the conspiratorial description of reality given by people like Handke plays straight into the political debate in Bosnia today, and is used to maintain yesterday´s view of the conflict, which is the basis for the political power in much of that dysfunctional country. The Ibsen Award thus has a political significance, which the jury should recognize.

There is no unassailable wall between literature and politics, not even in the case of Handke. It is the jury’s silence on these issues, more than the actual award, which makes the event an embarrassing affair.

150 years ago Henrik Ibsen dissected his time´s bourgeoisie on the stage. If he came back today, short stature and bearded, what would he write about? Perhaps a jury consisting of ‘Pillars of Society’ (name of an Ibsen-play) toying with the explosive attraction of a contrarian writer, who all run home and switch off their phones as soon as cries of real misery emerge from the background.

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