Gunnar Gunnarsson, Peter Handke, and the Nobel Prize

Think of it. Peter Handke, perhaps the greatest writer of the last fifty years…

peter handke

No, not in translation, but in his native German, won the prize that eluded Gunnar Gunnarsson…

… but has been spat upon for his politics, with many saying he should be stripped of his prize for his support of Serbia in the Bosnian War. Gunnar fell into the same kind of mess. In his case, he met with Hitler on the day Hitler was planning the invasion of Norway and Denmark. Gunnar had just completed a 40 city reading tour in the German Reich, including its new European colonies. In Gunnar’s case, his politics were too right wing to remain popular. The charge was laid against him that he knew of the invasion but didn’t warn anyone. Well, we’ll never know, but we do know that he invented a kind of writing that attempted to be relevant to all combatants, a mix of biography, nonfiction, fiction and fairytale. It didn’t work, but it is more than anyone else did, and is a model of possibility. His works, Inseln im Großen Meer, The Black Cliffs, Vikivaki, “Our Land”, and Advent (still in print), are a model of what we could still achieve. Now Handke has done it again, with a series of books showing how it is possible to confront right wing politics without losing one’s individuality and humanity — pressing issues for modern Europe, and no doubt why the Nobel Academy awarded him the prize — is being dismissed for his politics. What a shame to have a second guide stripped from us. They don’t come often. I’m not saying that Milosevic was not a war criminal. I’m saying that Handke showed us a path for displaced persons, a path of multilevel emotional sensitivity that included history but not its making. There’s more than one form of humanism. Did both men make huge mistakes? Yes. The choice is before us: to dismiss them for the mistakes, or to accept them as brothers for their achievements, achievements we need.


Rejecting the achievements of these writers diminishes us. The time for a new one to come with the same message appears to be about fifty years.

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