Peter Handke, Nobel Prize winner for literature: his effort for transparence versus media-speak opacity

Rosa Llorens 17/10/2019
A thunderclap shook the Nobel’s serene sky: After 20 years in Purgatory (since 1996 when he began defending Serbia against the “international community”), Peter Handke has entered Nobel Paradise!

Those who unleashed hatreds have not disarmed, but this official recognition of his contribution makes it possible to discuss the media war that had been waged against Yugoslavia, a war as criminal as that with bombs, and to measure the writer’s greatness.
Newspapers and magazines, literary or not, do not fail to report the outraged reactions of Croats and Albanians: The French website Actualitté informs us that the Albanian Prime Minister, Edi Rama, tweeted: “I would never have thought that a Nobel Prize award could make me vomit.”
We ask ourselves if Rama vomited when he learned that the UCK ( Kosovo liberation army-KLA) was engaged in a massive trafficking of organs taken from Serb prisoners (see Kosovo : Une guerre « juste » pour un État mafieux [Kosovo – A “Just” War For Mafia State”], by Pierre Péan, Paris, Fayard, 2013)? Already in 2010 we needed a strong stomach to swallow the fact that the Nobel Prize was awarded to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, a former Liberal candidate for Peru’s presidency, that is, a follower of the criminal “Chicago Boys.”
Courrier International hides behind The Guardian to smear Handke: “The Austrian playwright, whose Slovenian origins inspired him to fervent nationalism during the Balkan war, had publicly suggested that the Muslims of Sarajevo had massacred themselves.” All these assertions are biased, inaccurate, even grotesque. How could his Slovene origins have inspired him to pro-Serb nationalism?
About the two massacres in Sarajevo, see the Wikipedia article: it appears that the origin of the shots, Bosniak or Serb, could never be determined with certainty.
Elisabeth Philippe, in L’Obs [ news magazine previously known as Le Nouvel Observateur] , describes Jonathan Littell’s insults in The Guardian in 2008 as “very strong words”: Handke? “an asshole,” wrote Littell. What a brilliant literary or historical analysis!
During the wars against Yugoslavia, the media repeated the offensive language they would later launch against Iraq, Libya and Syria to prepare the public for military attacks; The difference is that in the case of Yugoslavia, they not only demonized the leader, “Hitlerized” him, but a whole people. They accused the Serbian people of expansionism, congenital fanatical nationalism, and, when the Serbs tried to defend themselves by referring to recent history, of “paranoia.”
Well, well, let’s be paranoid and quote a paragraph from Wikipedia about Serbia during World War II. Croatia, provided by the Nazis with an autonomous government, was led by the Ustashis who collaborated: “The Ustashis are known for their cruelty, willingly carrying out knifings, strangling people, mutilating their victims whose liver or heart they tear out, or killing young children and forcing the parents to bury their children before they too are executed; they burn Serb corpses in crematoria − where children are sometimes thrown alive — or throw their bodies into tributaries of the Danube to drift to Belgrade, carrying “complimentary messages” for Serbs in the capital.
“The brutality of the Ustashis was eventually judged counterproductive by their Nazi and fascist allies: Italians went so far as to actively oppose in places their Croatian “allies,” disarming some of their militias and protecting civilian populations against them.” The number of Serb victims in Croatian territory was estimated at 300,000 out of a population of 1.9 million.
Handke and Grass
But let us return to the literary aspect of the event. Handke, like Günter Grass (another Nobel Prize winner), had begun a brilliant career following the literary trends of the time (notably, for Grass, magical realism). It was late in their careers that each of them found their own way, and their own voice, with original literary formulas (in “Wide Field” in 1995, for Grass. which deals with the looting of the German Democratic Republic by West Germany; in “A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia”, in 1996, for Handke, which deals with the media and military wars against Yugoslavia), at the same time as they placed their work in the spotlight. And, of course, it was when they became major writers that they began to be challenged and even vilified.
The two writers had one other thing in common: they were both born in an outlying region of their respective countries: Grass was born in Danzig, which is now Polish (Gdansk); Handke was born in Carinthia, a crossroads region between Italy, Austria and then Yugoslavia, now Slovenia. This can be seen as the origin of a particular intolerance to the “official truth,” and of their ability to see the same situation from different angles.
It was precisely a nausea at the massive and unilateral nature of Serbia’s media lynching that prompted Handke, as [the French writer and political activist] Régis Debray did, to try to form his own opinion on the situation in Yugoslavia, going beyond the “truth” being trumpeted by all the official media outlets.
Debray went to Kosovo to see for himself and composted a “Letter from a traveller to the President of the Republic, or Impressions from Yugoslavia”. As this second title indicates, it was not a question of opposing one truth to another, but simply of drawing attention to the mass of stereotypes that the media were unleashing instead of describing reality; and it was destined to attract complaints, because, instead of describing the Terror that Milosevic was supposed to be using to stay in power, Debray simply reported seeing people peacefully sitting on the terraces of coffee shops.
Film director Emir Kusturica was also attacked because, in exuberant forms, he gives in his films a complex vision of the Yugoslav wars. There each people massacres its neighbors, who have become enemies (after 50 years of peaceful cohabitation in each village, each city, each building, from one door to another on the same floor) instead of denouncing a single people as the culprit and seeing in the others only victims.
Handke also sought new forms to escape stereotypes. We realize from the persecution of Handke, that for Emile Zola to just write “I accuse” this or that, he must have had behind him a large part of the media, parties and public opinion. For Handke, who had to face what is known as the “international community” (i.e. the media of the major Western powers), the task was much more difficult. He refuses to “denounce” (even if sometimes indignation against certain newspapers, such as Le Nouvel Observateur, or Libération, or against certain politicians such as Javier Solana, then NATO Secretary General, prevails), to lay down the law, and even simply to affirm his position. He invents a new literary form, the essay-reportage, where he proceeds by successive scans, where he revolves around his subject (hence the title of Rund um das Große Tribunal, Around the Great Tribunal, not translated into English] where he asks questions, accumulating small precise observations, “things seen.”
Thus, instead of denouncing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY — which is the judicial arm of the winners to finish off the defeated); he describes how he discovered, on the spot, the prison where Milosevic was imprisoned:
“The royal prison of Scheveningen is on the way to the pumping station. The road then leads into the dunes[…]. Even up close, even when you were in front of the prison, it seemed to be hidden. The surrounding wall was built of small, almost delicate bricks, similar to those of the row of houses in front of it, which, house by house, kept it out of sight. Hiding it from the eyes? Of course, that was not the case at all. Because as is customary in Holland, there were no curtains in these houses, and when you looked through the front window, you could see the whole living room at the same time as you looked out through the back window,” to the outside, that is to say, to the prison.
Handke thus makes an almost naive satire of the fake Calvinist transparency, which hides the essential by displaying the accessory, at the same time as he announces the main theme of “Rund um das Große Tribunal”: the “tele-truth.” This is the truth that we are convinced we possess, although we only have seen reflections of it through screens, without having any direct experience of it.
Similarly, during Milosevic’s trial, Handke notes that the gaze is inevitably drawn to the omnipresent set of screens that portrays him, which in turn will be reflected in the television screen of each household. Similarly, he does not denounce the Bosnian or Croatian witnesses to Serbian massacres for their lack of credibility (except to mention a specific case of false testimony in the trial of the Serb Novislav Djacic, convicted by a Munich court by facts that occurred far away, on a simple allegation.
Instead, he observed a Kosovar witness on the spot in his hotel, describing his return to a group of compatriots after his performance at the Tribunal as follows: “Greetings are heard on arrival; on the other hand, the arms take off before the handshake; relieved laughter and lively discussions follow for hours − as after a successful exam? The witness looks radiant. I had never seen anyone uncover their teeth like that before, not even Fernandel.”
Or it contrasts the “style” of the pathetic photos showing refugees as “victims,” with the much rarer ones of Serb refugees. “Why were these Serbs almost never shown in close-up and almost never alone, so to speak, but almost only in small groups and almost exclusively at mid-distance, yes, in the background. Unlike those photos of Croats or Muslims who suffer with their eyes full and painful on the camera, the Serbs are disappearing in the background and almost never again seen head on, but rather from side or towards the ground, as if they are aware that they are guilty? Like a foreign tribe? – or as too proud to pose? Or too sad for that?”
The subtitle of the “Journey” was, in the German and English edition, “Justice for Serbia” (Handke deleted it in the French edition because “to do justice by writing is too obvious; it is self-evident”); it could also be “Justice for reality”; or “Justice for writing”. In Handke, who fights against wooden media jargon, “each paragraph speaks and deals with a problem of representation, form, grammar, aesthetic truth and this as always, in my books?” we read in the Preface to “Journey”. It is not only about the Serbs, but about the possibility for everyone to have access to reality, if not (as it is impossible) in the flesh, at least through a language he has worked on to reduce to a minimum its inevitable opacity. For this, the Nobel Prize awarded to Peter Handke is indisputably deserved.