STOCKHOLM (AP) — Nobel Prizes for literature were awarded Thursday to two writers enmeshed in Europe’s social and political fault lines: a liberal Pole who has irked her country’s conservative government and an Austrian accused by many liberals of being an apologist for Serbian war crimes.
The rare double announcement — with the 2018 prize going to Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk and the 2019 award to Austria’s Peter Handke — came after no literature prize was awarded last year due to sex abuse allegations that rocked the Swedish Academy, which awards the literature prize.
Yet if prize organizers hoped to get through this year’s awards without controversy, they will likely be disappointed.
The Swedish Academy called Handke “one of the most influential writers in Europe” and praised his work for exploring “the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”
But the author has long faced criticism for his vigorous defense of the Serbs during the 1990s wars that devastated the Balkans as Yugoslavia disintegrated.
Handke — who once called for the Nobel Prize to be abolished — said he was “astonished” to receive the award.
“I never thought they would choose me,” the 76-year-old Handke told reporters outside his home in suburban Paris.
The choice of Tokarczuk, 57, was welcomed by liberal-minded authors and readers in her native Poland and beyond.
The novelist, known for her humanist themes and playful, subversive streak, has often irked Poland’s populists and conservatives. The academy said she was chosen for works that explore the “crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”
Tokarczuk won the Booker International prize in 2018 for the novel “Flights.”
She told Polish broadcaster TVN on Thursday that she was “terribly happy and proud” that her novels, which describe events in small towns in Poland, “can be read as universal and can be important for people around the world.”
Handke has been a big name in European literature for decades, crafting works — starting with his first novel, “The Hornets,” in 1966 — that combine introspection and a provocative streak. One early play, “Offending the Audience,” featured actors insulting theatergoers.
He was praised by the Swedish Academy for writing powerfully about catastrophe, notably in “A Sorrow Beyond Dreams,” his 1972 autobiographical novel about his mother’s suicide.
But his staunch support of the Serbs during the 1990s Balkans wars has set him at odds with many other Western intellectuals.
Novelist Jennifer Egan, president of PEN America, said the writers’ group deeply regretted the choice of Handke.
“We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide,” she said.
In contrast, the win by Tokarczuk was greeted with praise even by her critics. She has been attacked by Polish conservatives for criticizing aspects of the country’s past, including its episodes of anti-Semitism. She is also a strong critic of Poland’s current right-wing government, but Polish President Andrzej Duda called Thursday a “great day for Polish literature.”
Both literature winners will receive a full cash prize, valued this year at $918,000, a gold medal and a diploma at a ceremony in Stockholm on Dec. 10.
The literature prize was canceled last year after an exodus of members from the exclusive Swedish Academy following sex abuse allegations.