What´s Wrong With Handke?

This article originally appeared in Norwegian on the website of Klasskampen.no on September 10th as a part of the debate on the controversial decision to award Peter Handke the Ibsen Award. Written by lyricist, playwright and translator Øyvind Berg who is well acquainted with Handke´s work and his political views, especially his Serbia activism. Article has been translated and published with the author´s permisson.

Peter Handke in Oslo durin the award ceremony
Peter Handke in Oslo during the award ceremony

Across Europe extremism is growing on both sides of the political spectrum, and none of these movements have greater penetration in its population base than the Serb ultra-nationalists. Milorad Dodik controls Republika Srpska – one of the two entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina – by increasingly extremist principles. Serbian repression of what actually happened has become more and more grotesque. One of Radovan Karadzic defense witnesses claimed during the trial in The Hague that they only attacked military targets in Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995, and always in self-defense. The National Library; Vijecnica, with two million volumes that they set on fire – was in fact a Muslim ammunition depot which self-ignited, according to them. 6th of February this year a Serb representative in the Bosnian parliament said that Ratko Mladic was a national hero.

Many of the mayors in Republika Srpska are returning war criminals. Here we have to do with people who get upset over the use of the word “genocide “, but who choose to elect killers. Returning ethnic Muslims are harassed. I wrote earlier this year: “Utøya was like a miniature Bosnia. The Norwegian fascist was also greatly inspired by Serbian fascists – but he operated alone. Here they are many, and eighteen years after the war they have probably grown stronger. Very few were punished for their misdeeds, and those who were judged were given ridiculously low penalties. Several key war criminals are already free. Others stand at the court in The Hague and taunting their victims, week after week, year after year. Surviving victims will survive as best they can.”

In this situation the jury for the International Ibsen Award finds it prudent to honor the only possible candidate that supports the aggressors in the Balkans. While the willingness for peace and reconciliation is crumbling, the jury finds it right to endorse an author who has systematically applauded the most extremist Serbian actors. And they choose to do so without questioning his political attitudes and actions – but they claim that his work” is unparalleled in terms of formal beauty and brilliant reflection.”

What kind of brilliant reflections are they referring to? Is it the conspiracy theory about how great powers minus Russia have tried to crush the Serbs ever since Bismarck’s time? Is it the idea that Serbian war crimes are an overly literary affair to be treated by the courts? Is it the strategy of ethnic cleansing? Since the jury chooses not to discuss Handke´s political activities and positions, it is impossible to answer these questions, and there are only two ways to interpret their decision: Either the jury shares Handke`s vision and sympathizes or they do not know what they do?

Maybe the jury is simply deceiving itself? Maybe they are not capable of understanding simple political statements? Evidence would indicate that this is indeed the case. The justification for the award is full of strange assertions and crazy characteristics. Peter Handke’s play ” Die Fahrt im Einbaum” (Journey in the Trunk) from 1999 described as ”a modern world theatre.”

The irony of this expression becomes overwhelming when we know that “World Theatre” is one of Peter Handke´s designations for the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and the play´s basic structure is that of a trial. Two directors, one American and one Spanish are preparing to make a movie about the war in the Balkans, there is a mysterious screenplay written by a disappeared writer, and the script´s characters appear one by one in front of the director as in an audition or a witness interrogation. Some of them have taken part in the war, others have been observers, journalists or aid workers, what Handke refers to as; “hyenas of humanity”

The point of view in the play is easily recognizable as that of the Chetniks, (Serbian fascists) and the author himself shows up under the nickname “The Greek” It´s known that Maldic´s forces took Srebrenica with the help of Greek Volunteers and before the massacre two flags were raised over the town, a Serb and a Greek. The play´s hero is a kind man of the woods named after Handke’s friend Novislav Djajic.

When this character is whining and complaining on stage over the two years he served in German prison – it is an unpleasant fact that in all of that: Novislav Djajic was found guilty for the murder of fourteen innocent people. Two years for fourteen murders is not a harsh punishment. But it is worth noting that the hero of the piece is a war criminal and that it´s not the crime but the punishment that upsets the author.

During the funeral of a major war criminal Handke spoke sarcastically about the world media, who were not present because the believed that they knew the truth about Slobodan Milosevic. Handke said that he did not know the truth (still he could swear on the innocence of the deceased) and added: ”But I see. I feel. I recall. Therefore I´m present here today, close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milosevic.”

Now it matters little what Peter Handke actually said on that occasion, what matters is that he paid tribute to a war criminal and that tens of thousands ultra-nationalists that cheered understood that he was their man. Now they knew of course already that this was the only European intellectual that was willing to publicly trample all over their victims but the funeral speech was the symbolic gesture that sealed the covenant between Serbia´s most rabid nationalists and Peter Handke.

Some would also argue that it´s courageous of him to come forward in this way. By solemnly swearing by someone who conveys an almost unimaginable misanthropy and who is in common parlance referred to as a fascist. Karl Ove Knausgård ventures into those waters in an interview for Dagbladet where he calls Handke´s speech; “the most politically incorrect thing one can do” This is an extremely flexible use of the term ” politically incorrect “, which in many ways is a badge of honour for a writer.

Peter Handke is an author who has also accumulated many honors, in 2008 he received the Order of Njegoš of the first class by the president of Republika Srpska; Milorad Dodik. From Serbia, he has, in addition to a piece of land, received both The Prince Lazar Gold Cross (2009) and the gold service medal (2013) During the ceremony in April 2013 the point was made that recipient of the award turns down all honors from agencies that don´t share his views. What says the Norwegian Ministry of Culture about this? No comment?

Also the last play,” Immer noch Sturm”, has been honored with several awards. In this piece we encounter an author who´s writing is more muted, in the tradition of fellow countryman Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), who is little read today, but who was a literary superstar in his lifetime.

As a 1890s lyrical drama it takes place outside of time and space, or in a mythical time. Sparse on  dialogue and action the language is lyrical and self-reflecting, the imagery symbolic and the characters have the stamp of something otherworldly. The play is about a homesickness that has strong political connotations, a longing back to the authentic and pure life, to a time when people were surrounded by nature in a language that exudes what is real in an organic way, a language that is not tainted by what the author calls; “real time, historic, shitty” The play´s “I” is a man that very much resembles Peter Handke, the other characters are his mother, her parents and her siblings, three brothers and a sister. The author uses his own family´s history freely at the same time as he writes the piece in way that fits in with his Yugoslav commitment.

Alongside the first person there is uncle Gregor who is an expression of that commitment. In reality his uncle died fighting for the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front. In the flashback scenes he´s re-written into what we here call a «gutta på skauen» ( resistance movement) a deserter and a partisan who´s happiest day in his life is the day when Nazi-Germany surrenders, on May 8th 1945. However his happiness is short-lived, it turns out that only ten days later the western powers (in the eyes of the story teller) had betrayed the people in these border areas between Austria and Yugoslavia and that the area would be a part of the former (Austria) and the dream of Yugoslavia lost to the poor fruit gardener , “apple man” Gregor, – passages about fruit cultivation and different apple types constitute the highlights of the lyrical closely interwoven text, which is packed with historical echoes, old sayings and folk songs.

Gregor´s anti-Nazi path is also depicted as language path. He chooses to “fight for our mother´s. our father´s, our children´s house and livestock, for our Slavic, Illyrian or Ostrogoth or other kind of heritage that to some degree can be used to express the souls of our people, and admittedly the love of the country´s own language.”  That is the Slovenian language, the writer´s extremely mythologized mother´s language, a language that is invaded by the foreign German, and makes the grandfather curse all that is German in a curse that also frames the play´s “I” since his mother was impregnated by a German soldier.

Here we are transported to a mythical landscape where the German (Peter Handke´s own language, represents the evil and the instrumental) while the Slovenian (which later in a metonymic two stage movement starting with the dissolution of Yugoslavia, ends up being Serbian) represents the absolute good. As much as this may seem to be an oversimplified interpretation it does describe the fundamental conflict of both the play and the contradictions that are hardened by Peter Handke´s deep and defiant convictions which he generously projects on to the world around him.

The more beautiful  «Immer noch Sturm» grows to the spectator the bigger the sense of unease for those who know that the conviction behind it is full of lies and concealment of brutality. The lyrical drama genre has never been more political than in this piece. The jury calls it a “masterpiece” I’d argue that it is a deeply flawed piece which looks beautiful on the surface.

It´s cowardly of the Ibsen Award jury to look the other way when it comes to the political dimensions in Peter Handke´s work, especially since the author himself is seldom ambiguous about where he stands.  He also has a great deal of support both in and out of academic circles especially among those on the left and right extremes of the political spectrum. But regardless of what side they are initially on: The defense of Peter Handke´s Serbia activism is based on the outlook of the Serbian fascists. This is isn´t some post-modern hobby-fascism. This is bloody serious, and the surviving victims are all around us.

Peter Handke takes center stage in the story of one of the most explosive nationalist events of our time. He´s not a writer who accepts established truths, quite the opposite, he´s the kind of writer that cynically exploits the artistic potential of reactionary dogmas. A Hamsun-Award would have suited him better-given Hamsun’s Nazi-sympathies, but to honor Peter Handke in Henrik Ibsen´s name? That is a disgrace and an outrage.

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