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The writer and politics: Peter Handke’s choice

KA Dilday
13 June 2006

On 15 July 2003, Roberto Bolaño's liver marked a turbulent half-century by failing. The Chilean writer's death at the age of 50 was noted by a few scattershot obituaries in Britain, where By Night in Chile – his first novel to be translated into English – had just been published. But in the Spanish-speaking world, the literati keened in newspapers and journals, mourning the end of a man whose fiction examined Latin America's violent, ugly past.

For many writers, Bolaño was the significant novelist of his generation. To write about life in Latin America and ignore the tensions of the late 20th century seemed almost impossible, and Bolaño tapped them more truthfully than anyone.

Bolano's politically-charged fiction comes to mind as controversy over the designation of a literary prize for a Slobodan Milosevic supporter captivates Germany's intelligentsia.

In late May 2006, the Austrian novelist Peter Handke almost received the Heinrich Heine prize from the city of Düsseldorf. When the preliminary selection of Handke was announced all hell broke loose. Handke had earned himself the loathing of many for supporting the Serbian side in the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, for writing a book that claimed the Serbs had been misrepresented by the media, and for speaking kind works at Slobodan Milosevic's funeral about his leadership.

Handke responded by publicly removing himself from consideration for the prize, yet the arguments raged on in German-language papers (and was reported in English-language websites like the excellent SignandSight). This was not the only public moral opposition to Handke's work of late: his play Voyage to the Sonorous Land or the Art of Asking was removed from the 2007 schedule of France's Comedie Francaise. Handke had received many literary accolades before his defence of the Serbs and is considered, even by those who condemn his political views, a talented writer and novelist. But no one is talking about his work now, only his public commitments.

The issue of whether novelists and poets, artists if you like, should be judged by their morals and political stances is itself rife with debate, but I'm interested in the step before that. What we think and what they think since they often do it, qualifies them to expound on weighty political topics in public forums.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between north Africa and France.

Also by KA Dilday on openDemocracy:

"The freedom trail" (August 2005)

"Art and suffering: four years since 9/11" (August 2005)

"Rebranding America" (September 2005)

"Judith Miller's race: the unasked question" (October 2005)

"France seeks a world voice" (December 2005)

"A question of class" (January 2006)

"Europe's forked tongues"
(February 2006)

"The worth of illusion" (March 2006)

"The labour of others" (April 2006)

"A question of class, race, and France itself: reply to Richard Wolin" (May 2006)

A prize for conscience

When I worked as an editor on an opinion page we routinely asked novelists to write about political and social events in their country because they wrote well and engagingly; they made events vivid and real. Were they the sagest or the most politically astute? Probably not. But it is still the pieces by novelists that I edited that I remember most: Colm Tóibín on the road through Tara in Ireland, Javier Marias on terrorism in Spain and elsewhere, Emmanuel Dongala on the Rwandan genocide.

All were spectacularly beautiful, profound pieces, and as I remember them I realise the element they shared: the writers did not try to cloak the elusiveness of certainty - even as they advanced a particular position, they acknowledged its contradictions.

And that's perhaps why we give novelists fora outside of their medium. Pundits rarely admit ambivalence. They are like Isaiah Berlin's famous hedgehog, seeing only one big thing. There is little space for textured arguments in the age of television and lighting quick internet leaps, the pithy soundbite representing one particular argument is what producers are hoping for.

Yet most people are not like that. Most people are often confused and make choices despite their uncertainty. Perhaps then it is the rare writers who articulate the ambiguity most people feel about great events but cannot easily find the words to express – rather than those resounding with unflinching certainty and approbation – who most win a reader's respect.

In the aftermath of war and genocide in the 1940s, Theodor Adorno wrote that art's greatness lay in its "power to let those things be heard which ideology conceals." Just after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the Israeli writer Aharon Appelfeld wrote this: "I am a writer, not a prophet or a political analyst. Like everyone else, I am groping in this darkness."

In this perspective, Handke's offence is not his opinions per se, but his transition from novelist to political analyst and political writer. Had he left these opinions in his fiction, he would have been likely to give them more texture and less likely to draw criticism. Most people I know have a favorite writer whom we think may be of dubious morality. I still cringe when I read the anti-Jewish prejudice buried in some of Graham Greene's early fiction.

In the wake of the furore over the prize, some writers rushed to defend Handke, notably Elfriede Jelinek. They claimed that politics should have nothing to do with art and literature; and that even the hint that a literary prize should be given for political reasons was reminiscent of the most loathed repressive regimes. But when a writer decides to become a political figure, adding written political commentary to their body of work, they leave that protected space behind.

It's not that an artist or writer can't be both, it's that by entering the public fray one becomes judged by another set of standards. It was Handke's right (and, it seems he considers, moral imperative) to do so, but by entering politics, he abandoned the protection awarded to those of his profession.

Roberto Bolano's beautiful haunting fiction covers the bloody period following Salvador Allende's presidency in Chile. True, his anger over those who collaborated with the vicious Pinochet dictatorship that replaced Allende is a much more palatable position than Handke's alignment with Milosevic. But the literary response of these writers to the political world around them raises similar problematic questions.

The protagonist of By Night in Chile is a Catholic priest and writer who portrays the literary salons he attended, one of which is hosted by the wife of an American assassin and torturer. While wine and wit are the fare upstairs, downstairs they serve something much less savoury. A party guest, an artist, lost in the labyrinthine basement stumbles across a naked man, bruised and chained to a bed. He returns to the party and later spreads his tale. It happened months after the priest had last been to the house, so he claims in the telling:

"I asked myself the following question: Why then on that particular night, did a guest who lost his way find that poor man? The answer was simple: Because normally when she had a soiree, the basement was unoccupied. I asked myself the following question: Why didn't anyone say anything at that time? The answer was simple: Because they were afraid. I was not afraid. I would have been able to speak out, but I didn't see anything, I didn't know until it was too late. Why go stirring up things that have gradually settled down over the years?"

I include this passage because it touches on both of the issues of this column: the ability of a good novelist to layer political commentary in well-crafted, complicated fiction, and the dubious morality of artists who remain silent when they see what they consider to be a great wrong. In this case, the artist-protagonist sees an actual crime. One cannot look inside Peter Handke's heart, but I offer him this: if he believes that he did the right thing, then his conscience rather than literary prizes, should be where he affirms his life's achievements.

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