The controversial winner of this year’s International Ibsen Award, Austrian author Peter Handke, feels he has received an “unfriendly” reception in Norway after being met with boos and protests outside the National Theater in Oslo on Sunday. Handke, long criticized for defending Serbian nationalism, formally accepted his prize on Monday, but will not accept its cash proceeds of NOK 2.5 million (around USD 400,000).
Handke’s anger came through in his speech on Sunday after winning the award. In it, he defended his political views on the Balkan conflict and told his critics to “go to hell.” Handke’s escorts later told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Handke reacted strongly to being called a “fascist” and “murderer,” and felt he’d had an unfriendly reception in Oslo.
His speech opening the annual Ibsen Conference in Skien on Monday, though, was mostly void of politics, and he spoke of how Ibsen was important to his own development as an author. Skien is the hometown of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, in whose memory the Norwegian government established the prize in 2007. The Ibsen Award is billed as the world’s most prestigious theater prize, with winners chosen annually by a Norwegian jury that awards the prize to a person or institution honored for making “an outstanding contribution to the development of world drama and performing arts.”
Controversial but ‘unparalleled’
This year’s prize has set off a storm of controversy in Norway and led to demands that the jury, appointed by the government’s culture ministry, resign. One Norwegian professor, Bernt Hagtvet, called the choice of Handke an “unprecedented scandal” and Handke’s prize was condemned by the Norwegian chapter of PEN International, the worldwide association of writers.
Thorhild Widvey, the government minister in charge of cultural affairs, said she was staying out of the debate, however, in order not to interfere with the jury’s autonomy. “The jury is responsible for the award,” Widvey told newspaper Aftenposten. “I need to maintain the distance we must have between political and cultural evaluations.”
Handke won the Ibsen Award for writing “a body of work that is unparalleled in its formal beauty and brilliant reflection,” according to the jury. “If Ibsen was the model playwright of the bourgeois epoch, which has yet to end, Peter Handke is undoubtedly theater’s most eminent epic poet.” Per Bøye Hansen, leader of the jury, told NRK that while Handke was shaken over how he’d been received on the streets of Oslo, he wouldn’t turn down the prize. Boye said Handke won’t accept the prize’s cash proceeds, however, opting instead to spend some of the money for a swimming pool for children in Kosovo and letting the Norwegian state keep the rest of it.
Political views ‘did not disqualify’ him
Handke, age 71, who has written more than 30 novels, works of prose, plays and screenplays including Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience), is known for offending more than his audiences with his political activism. He’s been called a “historical revisionist” for denying that the Srebrenica genocide occurred and been criticized for his support of Serbian nationalism and the late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. Handke’s critics call him a fascist and author Salman Rushdie has written that Handke “has astonished even his most fervent admirers” with his “impassioned apologias for the genocidal regime” of Milosevic. Handke declined Milosevic’s request that he testify at his trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia but did speak at Milosevic’s funeral in 2006.
On Sunday, Handke was met by hecklers, many of them from Bosnia and Kosvo, outside what’s known as “Ibsen’s theater” in Oslo, Norway’s National Theater. They demanded he give the prize back, called him a “genocide denier” and booed as he walked past them. They complained that since the Ibsen Award is sponsored by the Norwegian government, it can appear that Norway supports what they called his “ultra nationalism.”
Inside the theater, Handke was met with applause by an audience full of Norway’s cultural and literary elite. Many of them, including jury leader Hansen, stressed that Handke won the prize for his literary contributions over the years. “A unified jury concluded that the accusations against Handke do not disqualify him as a prizewinner,” Hansen told news bureau NTB.
Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård, who has drawn international acclaim for his series of books Min Kamp (My Struggle), told newspaper Morgenbladet on Monday that he was ashamed of the debate raging over the award. He called the criticism of Handke “absurd,” claiming that Handke “doesn’t known the truth but searches for it. That is an author’s duty.” Knausgård also noted that Handke “has never killed anyone, never supported murder or mass murder” and added that none of his statements is illegal or immoral but “nuanced regarding the question of guilt.”