Acrimony has engulfed the Nobel literature prize over its latest winner’s support for Slobodan Milošević’s genocidal Serbian regime. The ambassadors of Turkey, Albania and Kosovo boycotted Tuesday’s prize ceremony and correspondents who reported on the Balkans conflict, from the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, have joined the protests. The 2019 Nobel should never have been awarded to Peter Handke.
The rightful anger has overshadowed the deserving winner of the 2018 prize – honoured simultaneously because last year’s announcement was delayed by the sexual assault scandal that overtook the Swedish Academy. She is the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk, best known in English for Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. The former is a poetic meditation on travel; the latter a genre-defying, William Blake-infused story set amid an isolated community on the Czech border, which might be described as a poetic eco-thriller. Tokarczuk’s Nobel lecture bears witness to her belief in the power of literature in a world of information overload and fissiparous, divisive narratives. She uses a particularly striking image: “The world is a fabric we weave daily on the great looms of information, discussions, films books, gossip, little anecdotes. Today the purview of these looms is enormous – thanks to the internet, almost everyone can take part in the process, taking responsibility and not, lovingly and hatefully, for better and for worse”.
She recalls, as a child, having an instinctive understanding through fairytales and myth of the connectedness of things, the fact that all of us – humans, animals, plants, objects, landscapes – are bound together. As she grew older, she lost that sense of deep interdependence. It is what, as a writer, she has yearned to rediscover through her imaginative life, recognising that creativity is not abstract and removed from the world, but a continuation of it.
At the moment, humans are not doing well in this shared project of existence; our greed, failure to respect nature, selfishness and other shortcomings have reduced the world to the status of an object that can be destroyed, she writes. Her lecture is a call to action: “I must tell stories as if the world were a living, single entity, constantly forming before our eyes, and as if we were a small and at the same time powerful part in it.” Her words offer a warning, but also a shard of optimism, of possibility despite the darkness.
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