IT WAS A SPECIAL edition of the Nobel prize in literature. Following the suspension of the award last year in the wake of a sexual-abuse scandal, on October 10th the Swedish Academy announced the winners of both the 2018 and 2019 medals. From shortlists of eight writers, they chose to crown Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish novelist, and Peter Handke, an Austrian playwright, scriptwriter and memoirist. Each writer will receive 9m Swedish krona ($907,000), a medal and a diploma.
Earlier this month, Anders Olsson, chair of the Nobel prize in literature committee, had said that formerly the jurors “had a more Eurocentric perspective on literature,” but that now they “are looking all over the world”. So the triumph of two authors from Europe, which accounts for just 11% of the world’s population but three-quarters of the laureates since the Nobel prize was founded in 1901, will surprise those who had hoped the Academy might use its year of reflection to broaden its scope and acknowledge a writer from further afield. Early favourites were Maryse Conde, the empress of Caribbean literature; the celebrated Kenyan novelist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o; and Haruki Murakami from Japan.
Ms Tokarczuk, whose books have been lyrically translated into English by Jennifer Croft and Antonia Lloyd-Jones, was lauded for her “narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. In 2018 she won the Man Booker International prize for “Flights”, a literary dreamscape that focused on travel, history and jetlag. Earlier this year her crowning work, “The Books of Jacob”, translated by Maryla Laurent, was awarded the Prix Laure-Bataillon for the best foreign-language book translated into French in the past year. It will be published in English in 2020.
Although Ms Tokarczuk’s work has found a wide readership in Britain and America, she has proved a thorn in the side of right-wing patriots in Poland who object to her saying that the country’s leadership committed “horrendous acts” of colonisation in the past, particularly of peoples in large territories to the east of present-day Poland, such as Ukraine. In 2014 her Polish publisher was forced to hire bodyguards to protect her after she was described as targowiczanin—an ancient Polish word for traitor.
Yet it is Mr Handke who is the more controversial of the two laureates. He has long been recognised as one of the finest living writers in German and was praised by the committee for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”. He is best known beyond the German-speaking world for his screenplay for Wim Wenders’s film, “Wings of Desire” (1987), a romantic fantasy in which an angel gliding over Berlin falls in love with a lonely trapeze artist. “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams”, Mr Handke’s memoir of his mother’s experiences as a young woman in an Austrian village under Nazi occupation, and her subsequent suicide, will be reissued in Britain next month by Pushkin Press.
Mr Handke’s Slovene roots on his maternal side led to an early interest in Yugoslavia. He became a long-standing supporter of the Serbian leader and war criminal, Slobodan Milosevic, and spoke at his funeral in 2006. In his eulogy he said: “I don’t know the truth. But I look. I listen. I feel. I remember. This is why I am here today, close to Yugoslvia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milosevic.” Members of the public protested against Mr Handke’s receipt of the International Ibsen Award in 2014. After the announcement of the Nobel prize, Vlora Citaku, the Kosovan ambassador to the United States, described it as “scandalous…preposterous and a shameful decision”.
Perhaps the Nobel committee made a conscious decision to pair these two European writers together. Although they have very different literary approaches and writing styles, they are both concerned with contested lands, about who owns memory and about the central human need to tell stories.