EDITOR’S NOTE: The presentation of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature to Austrian author Peter Handke—who has denied the massacre of thousands of Bosnians and expressed support for accused genocide instigator Slobodan Milošević—has been strongly criticized. At the announcement on October 10, 2019, Swedish Academy member Anders Olsson said the selection was literary, not political. In an essay originally published by Swedish newspaper Göteborgsposten, Swedish poet and author Johannes Anyuru questions the split between artist and artwork. The English-language edition of his most recent novel, They Will Drown in their Mothers’ Tears—which is about terror, nationalism, and racism—is out in November. This essay was translated from Swedish by Kira Josefsson.
“The prize is always political, always a compromise, always a statement of values.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
An organization that draws its authority from a professed ability to “objectively” judge literary “quality” must of course show that it, unlike the rest of us, is able to make such judgments. It must show that it is able to step out of the present day, away from the limitations of its own horizon, away from the problem of translation, and so on. One way—possibly the only way—to do this is by picking authors whose work, in addition to being manifestly fantastic, is also darkened by that which is condemned in the contemporary era. That which should make these authorships impossible. The darker the shadows attached to the writer, the purer the gaze seems that praises the work. And so we arrive, via postmodernism, at a Gothic view of literature, where the genius is once again a monster, a Mr. Hyde, a man who goes against the morality of the plebs and the politically correct. Suddenly abuses, violence, and other ethical abysses are not merely to be tolerated—they are badges of honor for the artist.
One of the winners of the two Nobel Prizes in literature given this year, Peter Handke, plays his part of the equation almost too perfectly when he comments on the prize by saying that the Nobel Committee made “a brave choice,” since “they voted for literature, not politics”—for he is, he claims, “pure literature.”
The day that follows the announcement of the two Nobel Prizes is one of the first truly cold fall days. Steely sky over the bunker-like building that houses the public television channel.
I like putting skies, weather phenomena, addresses, in texts like this one. To situate the body, the gaze, in the landscape and the shifting seasons, in the movement of time.
I am sitting in the green room, waiting to appear on a literary TV show to talk about the prizes. I look up at a TV screen that lets you follow what’s happening in the studio in real time. Critic Anders Olsson and journalist Steve Sem-Sandberg discuss Peter Handke’s work; they are both happy, almost congratulating each other on their excellence. Then, because they can’t not, they talk about Handke’s siding with Serbia in the Yugoslav War, his denial of the ethnic cleansing of this war, his oddly hollow speech at Slobodan Milošević’s funeral. They are in wholehearted agreement that none of this should affect the judgment of Handke’s work.
Power creates a certain unreality, since its violence always gets there first: Power puts you in front of violence as a fait accompli, and now it is you who appear violent when you protest. The logic of abuse: “This is something that happened, which is unfortunate, but after all we have to keep working together, the children need to continue attending the same high school classes”—and so on. It is the person who points to the violence who appears violent, controversial, unreasonable… as “the worst permanent secretary in the history of the Academy.” As I look up at the TV screen, I think about the darkness that surrounds the studio. In concrete terms, many studios are encased by a circle of dark drapes, black floors, and walls. Furniture, guests, they all seem to be floating in the night. It’s just an image, but it comes to me in that moment, accompanied by the news images I must have seen in my teenage years, during the Yugoslav War. A stream of refugees walking through snow; a Bosnian describing how boys and men with their hands tied behind their backs were taken out into the forest, lined up, shot, kicked into a ditch; Bosnian men behind barbed wire, skeletal; mass graves of naked bodies in muddy soil.
In the TV studio, on a couch that floats in the night, Steve Sem-Sandberg says, “I definitely don’t think this should be included in the assessment.”
Sometimes I think I have brought myself so far from my places of origin and the experiences that shaped the contact points between my body and language that I have at last achieved the dubious privilege of not being pitched into physical affect because of something someone has said. As though, between myself and language, there is a dark circle, an emptiness. But as I sat there looking at the TV screen, that familiar nightmarish feeling came crawling back from a different time. Language transformed from a play of sounds and meanings to an event where I, my life—the value of my life—is at play. Language turned inside-out: my life, suddenly the mute piece of world that others speak of. My hands were trembling, like they used to before I entered the Muay Thai ring when I still boxed. Strange to experience that feeling here, among salty crackers and fancy cheese. I don’t think it’s something that those who have never felt it can fully understand. They can’t comprehend, since they’ve never trembled.
A few paragraphs up, writing about mass graves, I chose to delete the word “Muslim” everywhere and replace it with the word “Bosnian.” (“I definitely don’t think this should be included in the assessment.”)
I started writing this text to induce a feeling of shame. A person who doesn’t grieve the dead, who doesn’t feel sufficiently moved by the deaths to have them affect their thinking, their writing, might at least be able to feel shame. Shame that we didn’t stop it. Shame over their own silence. Shame over those who were left behind.
But I wonder, now that I am sitting at home on my own couch, writing this—a couch that in no way floats in the night, but is absolutely a part of the world and has certain specific and material aspects—and actually, the couch is not mine, since we are currently renting a furnished home—of course the couch in the TV studio is also part of the material world, of the economy, violence, peace—these are just images—but here I am, sitting on a rented couch and thinking about the Nobel Prize. Wondering if it could be so simple that those who gave the prize to Handke, and who are able to speak a certain way about Handke’s violent declarations, don’t feel shame before the dead, since none of them have Muslims in their intimate circles. They live in a Europe that once again dreams of banishing Muslims; let’s not forget that my rented couch is situated in a country where a political party distributes fliers telling immigrants and refugees : “Time to go home.” They live here, alongside me, alongside the rest of us, but it might be that their worlds are arranged in such a way that the only Muslim whose eyes they need to look into is a cab driver’s—a glance in the rearview mirror—or a person who shakes their hand in a TV studio, who averts his gaze only imperceptibly, since in some strange way he is ashamed for them.
But actually I wanted to write about Herodotus and the Scythians.
Because this year, when the whole literary world was hoping for a signal of new beginnings—perhaps the prizes would go to two women, or to writer in a language that hadn’t received the Nobel in a long time—it appears at first glance both tone-deaf and counterproductive to give the prize to Peter Handke.
Herodotus tells a story about an enslaved people—the Scythians—who rise up. Their masters are on a military campaign that lasts so long that the slaves forget they are slaves and take power. When the masters return and discover their world order turned upside down, a crisis in full bloom, they unsheathe their swords to once more subjugate the Scythians, but are surprised to lose the battle. One of them points out that attacking the slaves like they would an army of free people, of equals, is the wrong strategy. Let us put our swords down, he says, and pick up our whips instead, to remind them they are slaves. The ruse is successful: The slaves who stood up to their former masters when attacked with swords that signaled their equality grow terrified at the sight of whips. They abandon their weapons and plead for mercy.
But, of course, this method for upholding supremacy works only up to a point. It requires the slaves to still, somewhere deep inside, feel like slaves, subjugated. And the Academy is making itself ever more irrelevant every time it shows that it’s unable to treat a global, writing public as if they consisted of equals, and instead views them as plebs in need of authoritarian discipline. The organization displays an almost provincial, unsophisticated defiance as it guides us in the bestowing of a prize upon “humanity.” I think of Academy member Horace Engdahl’s theatrical laughter when he exited the Academy’s offices in Stockholm’s Old Town and was met by journalists and their cameras in the midst of the Academy’s crisis. Is that big laugh not similar to the gesture of giving the Nobel Prize to Peter Handke? And is it not the same gesture to take the unusual step of bestowing two prizes and giving both of them to Europeans, defending the double wedding by explaining that this year you certainly read books from other parts of the world, and you reached the conclusion that the Europeans are (still) the best.
“This is not a political text.”
There is yet another unappealing dimension here: the fact that it is the very Academy that insists on the complete separation between the artist and the work. Is there anyone, even a single person, who believes it is possible to be publicly critical of the members of the Academy and still receive prizes from them? This Academy, one of whose members spoke of crushing a poet like a louse under his thumbnail after said poet gestured to the age difference between that member and the member’s wife—are they really going to reprimand us about learning the difference between the author and his work?
After the taping, having twice passed through the dark circle and left the TV studio, one of my colleagues asked if I would like to be a member of the Swedish Academy. I laughed out loud.
Rain in the air today, and crows. The leaves bright yellow. I am at home in Gothenburg. Meant to write something else today. But I trembled. I am about to go pick up my daughter from kindergarten.
Toni Morrison, approximately: “The real work of fascism is to keep people busy proving they have a history, a language.”
They say about Prophet that he almost never laughed big enough for others to hear or for his teeth to show, but that he often smiled. A smile shadowed by some secret grief.