Peter Handke. A Reception of a Literary Controversy by Saša Ilić


There are not that many writers who could boast performing a salto mortale as Austrian writer Peter Handke had done in the Balkans during the 1990s. Handke, who started as a member of a politically active literary circle in Gratz, had an excellent reception in the socialist Yugoslavia in the late 1960s. His play Offending The Audience, directed by Pit Teslić, was staged back then in the courtyard of the University of Belgrade Rectorate, not that long after its Frankfurt premiere. His works were translated sporadically in Yugoslavia during the 1970s, simultaneously in Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana. Handke had a special bond with Ljubljana, where his roots are partly from. The beginning of the 1980s was marked by his more and more pronounced presence on the Yugoslav theatrical and literary scene. In Serbia alone, numerous translations of Handke’s books were published (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, The Left-Handed Woman, Short Letter Long Farewell, Child Story, The Lesson of Mount Sainte-Victoire, etc.), largely owing to the efforts of his translator Žarko Radaković.

However, Handke’s poetic concerns with language as a medium and with the limits of communication present in his early works, start to change significantly in the last decade of the 20th century . Not only did he stop being radical and experimental in his poetics, but he also started being political in a way that would stir controversy on the European cultural scene. His biographers mostly agree that this new phase was “inspired” by the poetical ideas from his early works, and that Handke himself became a victim of his own radical experiments.

When the war broke out in the 1990s, leading to the demise of Yugoslavia, Handke took an “exclusive” stance towards the current affairs of the time, a stance very similar to the views of the Milošević regime in Belgrade. With such an experiment he won the huge sympathy of the Serbian political and cultural elites. On the other hand, European intellectuals were dismayed and rejected such views, joined by intellectuals in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, who understood Handke’s stance as him siding with the Serbian nation in that war. Furthermore, his pro-Milošević stance got radicalized in the years to come. He started visiting Belgrade on a regular basis. In 1996, after the war in Bosnia ended, he published A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, the book in which he contested Western media reporting, defending Serbia as a victim of the 1990s war in Yugoslavia. A year later he published a sequel titled A Summary Addendum to a Winter’s Journey. Trying to justify his new style, Handke once made an ironic comment about how nobody would read a book that only describes “the streets being empty and the river Drina being cold”. He was awarded in 2000 with the Karić Brothers Foundation prize. On that occasion he shook hands with Bogoljub Karić, Milošević’s ally and a tycoon who is still in hiding in Moscow, and described him as a man who “was preserving the traditional values and customs, which give us moral strength to defend all that is sacred to us as human beings.”

Being true to his political/poetical views, Handke returned the Büchner’s Prize in 1999 as a protest against the NATO bombing campaign in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. However, the highlight was definitely Handke’s arrival to Milošević’s funeral, where he delivered a speech, deeply convinced that he was doing the only right thing to do in Europe at that moment. Such acts and gestures made him the most welcomed guest of the Belgrade political elite, which still holds most of the influential decision-making positions in Serbian society. In 2015 Handke was made an honorary citizen of Belgrade. His plays have been running in the KPGT theatre in Belgrade for the last two decades. KPGT’s founder and its only director, (once a great Yugoslav theatre director) Ljubiša Ristić, was another close ally of Milošević and his wife Mira Marković during the 1990s.

Another important aspect of Handke’s reception in Serbia should be mentioned. Already in the 1990s he had started to lose his artistic and intellectual credibility amongst people on the politically progressive and alternative cultural scene in Serbia, as his views made it even harder for the local political opposition to topple Milošević regime and democratize Serbian society. In 2006 the book Should Handke be burned? was published. It is a collection of all relevant critical articles and essays on the life and work of this controversial author. Furthermore, a number of authors started a sort of a “dialogue” with Handke, writing books as a reponse to the views he had sustained over the years. Bora Ćosić is one of those authors, who wrote The Journey to Alaska, his counter-Handke philosophical traveloque in 2006.

By Saša Ilić

Translated by Svetlana Rakocevic

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 16 May 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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