Scandalous pro-Serbian novelist inflames Europe's literati

The man who wrote "Wings of Desire" has Europe's literati up in arms over his pro-Serbian diatribes and stands accused of domestic violence.

Published June 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Salman Rushdie has enlivened the European leg of his promotional tour for his new novel, "The Ground Beneath Her Feet," by nominating candidates for the "International Dunderhead 1999" award. His short list consisted of two names: Charlton Heston and Peter Handke.

That first nomination may be controversial, but certainly needs no explanation. The second, however, might. If Americans are familiar with the name Peter Handke at all, it's most likely because they've seen it as the screenwriting credit for Wim Wenders' "Wings of Desire". But in Europe, there's no escaping the brouhaha surrounding the Austrian novelist and playwright regarded by the likes of John Updike as the greatest living writer in German literature.

"Mars is attacking and since March 24th, Serbia, Montenegro ... and Yugoslavia are the fatherland of all those who have not become martial, green butchers," Handke declared almost immediately after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia, and he rushed off to Belgrade from his home in Chaville, France. As early as last October during the Rambouillet negotiations, Handke announced, "My place is in Serbia if the NATO criminals bomb."

The war may be winding down, but the controversy sparked by Handke's unabashed support for the Serbs shows no sign of letting up. His new play, "The Journey into the Dugout, or the Play of the Film of the War," set in a war-ravaged Balkan hotel room, premiered at the Burgtheater in Vienna on June 9, to harsh reviews.

Earlier this month, the Munich newspaper S|ddeutsche Zeitung ran a lengthy Handke harangue in the form of a travelogue, in which the writer accused Western media organizations of profiteering from the war. Addressing "the media" directly, he wrote, "First you bomb and then sell stories about the victims of the bombing, just like the nations whose accomplices you are, first destroying and then playing peacemaker."

Other European intellectuals have condemned NATO's bombing, of course, but none have done so with such vehemence. Furthermore, most dissenters have qualified their criticism with an equal dose of condemnation for Slobodan Milosevic. But it's only recently, specifically in the S|ddeutsche Zeitung piece, that Handke has even mentioned the Kosovar Albanian refugees, albeit in the same breath that he reminds his readers once again of the Serbian victims of NATO's bombs.

"There is not a people in Europe in this century [that] has had to endure what the Serbs have had to put up with for five or more, eight, years," Handke proclaimed in an interview on Serbian television in February. "There are no categories for this. There are categories and concepts for the Jews. You can talk about that. But with the Serbs, it is a tragedy for no reason, a scandal."

For many former friends, that comparison of the Serbs with the victims of the Holocaust was the last straw. Though Handke later apologized for his "slip of the tongue," Susan Sontag declared him "finished" in New York. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek denounced Handke's "glorification of the Serbs" as "cynicism" and French philosopher Alain Finkelkraut chimed in as well, saying, "Handke's transformation into an ideological monster is fascinating. If he can't think of anything better to say than that the Serbs are the people who have suffered most in this century, then the Germanic guilty conscience is behind it."

Handke's former lover, actress and photographer Marie Colbin, suggests that there may be other motives. Three weeks ago, she became fed up with Handke's public tirades and broke her self-imposed silence on the matter, publishing an open letter to Handke in the Austrian magazine Format. Accusing him of "basking in the role of the 'lonely voice,'" Colbin adds, "Somehow, you'll be grateful for this war since it perversely satisfies your unquenchable thirst for public recognition."

Handke has, in fact, pulled a few moves lately that have all but guaranteed publicity. He returned the 10,000 marks (more than $5,000) that came with the B|chner Prize, Germany's most important literary award, and he's quit what he calls the "current" Roman Catholic church to protest the Vatican's stand on the war. Though he loudly and persistently trashes journalists, he knows how to use them, posing most recently for photographers in front of the bombed out Yugo factory in Belgrade.

In her open letter, Colbin hurled terms like "self-absorbed" and "violent" at her former lover. "I still hear my head being pounded on the stone floor," she wrote. "I still feel the mountain boot in my abdomen and also the fist in my face." If there is even the slightest truth to Colbin's accusations, the hypocrisy of Handke's denunciation of "the NATO criminals" is hardly lost on her. "As long as there are men in this world -- men like you -- one-eyed, unrelenting, power-hungry and ego-crazed -- there will also be weapons, and therefore, wars."

But Handke's vigorous support of the Serbs shouldn't be attributed to ego alone. The son of a German soldier and a Slovenian mother, Handke grew up in a small provincial town in southern Austria. He fell in love with neighboring Yugoslavia and was infuriated to see the rise of Slovenian nationalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and angered by Germany's early recognition of Slovenia, the first state to break away from Yugoslavia, as an independent nation. Rebelling against the homelands of both parents, Handke sided with what he perceived as the true Yugoslavia.

Two weeks ago in Munich, Rushdie explained why his "International Dunderhead 1999" award would have to go to Heston rather than Handke. As a lobbyist, Rushdie said, Heston has genuine power, while Handke, the writer, is "fortunately almost powerless."

By David Hudson

David Hudson writes the English-language News Digest for Spiegel Online.

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