Defiant Nobel winner Handke dismisses questions on Balkan wars

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Austrian writer Peter Handke, winner of the 2019 Nobel literature prize, said on Friday he preferred anonymous hate mail to questions about his support for Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia’s strongman during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

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The Swedish Academy’s choice of Handke has been widely criticized because he has expressed support for Milosevic, who died in detention at the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Handke, author of “The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick” and “Slow Homecoming”, spoke at Milosevic’s funeral in 2006.

The writer met the media in Stockholm, where he is due to collect his award.

Asked whether he accepted that a massacre at Srebrenica in Bosnia had taken place, a visibly trembling Handke answered by saying he had received many letters of support from readers after he was awarded the 9 million Swedish crown ($935,000) prize in October.

But he said he had also received one anonymous letter which had toilet paper in it. It had a kind of “calligraphy of shit”, he said.

“I tell you I prefer the toilet paper, an anonymous letter with toilet paper inside, to your empty and ignorant questions,” Handke said.

The 77-year-old said he wanted to thank readers for their letters of support, but refused to speak about the former Yugoslavia. “I don’t want to answer any of your questions,” he told the room full of journalists.

Protests are planned on Tuesday in Stockholm when Sweden’s king presents Handke with the award.

The Swedish Academy is no stranger to controversy and is still trying to draw a line under a sex scandal that saw it forced to postpone the award for 2018.

Its choices for laureate have also been criticized in the past. The award in 2016, to Bob Dylan, was ridiculed by many as too populist. The Academy has also been lambasted for picking winners who are too obscure.

The Academy has defended its decision to award Handke the prize, saying he had clearly condemned the Srebrenica massacre, though it accepted he had made “provocative, unsuitable and unclear comments in political questions”.

However, one of the Academy’s 18 members said on Friday he would boycott this year’s celebrations in protest.

“To celebrate Peter Handke’s Nobel Prize would be gross hypocrisy on my part,” Peter Englund, who headed the Academy until 2015, told daily Dagens Nyheter.

In 1996, Handke wrote an essay called “Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia” in which he sided with Milosevic’s administration.

He cast doubt on the Srebrenica massacre and said the 43-month siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces was staged by Bosnian Muslims.

Editing by Niklas Pollard and Giles Elgood