Now that delayed 2018 Nobel has been awarded to Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish writer and activist lauded for her “narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”
Tokarczuk—winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and a recipient of Poland’s highest literary accolade, the Nike Award—is only the 15th woman to claim the prestigious Nobel literature prize. Comparatively, 114 men have won the award since its inception in 1901.
Tokarczuk is known for her best-selling books and her ardent criticism of the country’s right-wing government. Per the committee, the author’s breakthrough moment arrived in 1996, when she published her third novel, Primeval and Other Times. More recently, Tokarczuk has earned accolades for The Books of Jacob, a historical novel centered on 18th-century religious leader Jacob Frank, and Flights, a 2017 work that won her last year’s Man Booker International Prize.
“[She is] a writer preoccupied with local life but at the same time inspired by maps and speculative thought, looking at life on Earth from above,” the judges said in a statement. “Her work is full of wit and cunning.”
The 2019 Nobel, meanwhile, was awarded to Austrian author Peter Handke, a move that has sparked new controversy.
Per a press release, the committee chose to recognize Handke “for an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”
The judges also highlighted Handke’s versatility across genres: His most widely read work is A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, a novella written seven weeks after his mother’s suicide, but he has also penned essays, short prose, plays and screenplays addressing such universal topics as discovery, nostalgia and catastrophe, as the Washington Post’s Ron Charles reports.
But the elephant in the room is Handke’s notorious support of the late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević. The author delivered a eulogy at Miloševic’s funeral and later called the Serbian leader, who died in 2006 while on trial for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, a “rather tragic man. Not a hero, but a tragic human being.”
The Guardian’s book team called the selection of Handke “incredibly strange,” pointing out that just this month, Anders Olsson, chair of the Swedish Academy’s Literature Committee, re-emphasized the judges’ dedication to diversity, citing a desire to move away from the award’s “Eurocentric,” “male-oriented” history.
For his part, Handke told reporters he was “astonished” to receive the award following this morning’s announcement. The playwright and author has been vocally critical of the Nobel award in the past for promoting “false canonization” of literature, and in 2014, he called for the abolishment of the prize.