Peter Handke's Book Sparks Storm of Controversy
FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Just the title was enough to set off a furor — “Justice for Serbia: A Winter Journey to the Rivers Danube, Sava, Morava and Drina.” When Peter Handke, one of the most influential German-language writers, published the long essay in January, it created an immediate storm in literary and intellectual circles across Europe. Handke, 53, a native Austrian now living in Paris, has a wide audience for his introspective novels and plays. His essay sparked debate going to the heart of Europe’s agony over what it should or should not have done to stop the Continent’s worst bloodletting since World War II.
A major theme of his essay — now turned into a book published by Suhrkamp of Frankfurt — is that the reporting of Western news media has drilled into readers’ minds an image of Serbs as aggressors in the Yugoslav conflict.
“In this war as in others, the roles of assailants and the attacked, the pure victims and the naked evil-doers, were too quickly assigned for the benefit of the so-called world public,” he wrote.
The war correspondents “are not only arrogant chroniclers, they are also false,” he added. “To bring the war closer to the clients, many international magazines, from Time to Nouvel Observateur, proclaimed Serbs in general evil and Muslims in general good.”
In Germany and Austria, barely a day goes by without a comment on the essay from a journalist, author or analyst — most of them attacking Handke. The critics say he ignores the atrocities perpetrated by Bosnian Serbs, who between April and November 1992 seized 70 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina and expelled more than 1 million non-Serbs, mostly Muslims, from their homes. The Guardian, an influential national British newspaper, devoted a full page to a story on “The man who loves the Serbs.”
Germans and Austrians have in particular been stung by Handke’s criticism of their countries’ swift readiness to recognize Slovenia and Croatia as independent nations in 1991, when the old Yugoslavia began breaking up. Handke’s essay was first published in two weekend installments by Munich’s highly regarded Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which called his descriptions “provocative, irritating and also liberating.” It said the essay was designed to stir debate and question assumptions about the war and how it was reported.
It succeeded. Handke then published the essay as a book, reversing the title to put “Justice for Serbia” at the end. It has shot to No. 1 in the Austrian best-seller lists. Next, he went on the road, giving public readings in Germany, Austria and Slovenia.
Austrian state television broadcast a discussion following a Vienna reading that set the whole nation talking. A spectator who said he had been in Sarajevo 22 times during the war asked Handke why he had not visited Bosnia. The author raged at the man: “Why do people always ask why I didn’t go to Bosnia? ... Are you the owners of suffering?”
Some of Handke’s most bitter remarks — in his text and at his packed readings — are reserved for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a conservative German newspaper that took a strong anti-Serb line even before the war and is unabashedly pro-Croat. Handke also criticized Peter Schneider, an author who wrote articles on the Bosnian war for Der Spiegel magazine, for supporting NATO air strikes on Bosnian Serbs.
Schneider replied in Spiegel, challenging Handke’s contention that the Serbs were provoked into war by the secession of Croatia that left hundreds of thousands of Serbs as second-rate citizens in a land they did not want to live in. “Nearly all aggressors in history, not least Adolf Hitler, claimed they were reacting to provocation,” Schneider wrote.
Handke first wrote a book lamenting the breakup of the multiethnic Yugoslavia in 1991 after Slovenia’s secession. In November 1995, he traveled through Serbia, accompanied by the translator of his works into Serbo-Croatian. He went to rural areas, far from the front lines of war, and came back describing the Serbs as isolated and proud. “On my travels, at least, I did not see Serbia as a land of paranoiacs — much more as the huge room of an orphaned, yes, an orphaned, abandoned child,” Handke wrote. “ But who knows? What can a stranger know?”
Aleksandar Tisma, a writer who left Serbia for France in protest against Serbia’s nationalistic policies at the outset of the war, contends Handke’s work has been misunderstood. “It is the book of a man who is mourning after a country,” Tisma told the Frankfurter Rundschau. “Nowhere does Handke claim that Serbs committed no crimes. ... He experienced Yugoslavia as a beautiful, big, multiethnic country. It pains him now that this country has gone under, broken up.”
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