A Journey to the Rivers.


On February the 29th 1996 the siege of Sarajevo finally came to an end. It was the final chapter in the story of a city that had experienced so much tragedy. However this was just one story and one city. There are other stories of tragedy in a part of the world that has suffered for many years then and since. Yugoslavia used to be a place of many cultures and ethnicities which only thrived owing to its status as a socialist country, and the conventional belief shared by those who profess socialism as a creed is that cultural and ethnic differences are superficial.


In 1989 the Berlin Wall collapsed. In the wake of its collapse the sentiment for nationhood and independence from socialist super states was revived. Yugoslavia broke up as an entity, and each nation sought independent status. Ancient enmities that were once suppressed simmered to the surface again. Conflict broke out and this sense of shared unity was broken. Historical feuds between peoples were reanimated and dreadful acts of atrocity and vengeance were committed. War was the inevitable consequence, and in the ten years of fighting an estimated 140,000 people lost their lives.


In 2019 the War entered the public arena again when the Nobel awards committee declared Peter Handke as the winner of the Literature Prize. Handke is an Austrian born writer of Carinthian heritage. In 1996 he made a personal pilgrimage to delve further into his Slovenian identity. The Slovenes were allies of the Serbs during the war and this alliance drove him to travel into what had become a demoralised and broken nation. In the wreckage of war he sought to salvage meaning and this was evinced in the book that followed.


“A Journey to the Rivers” became controversial almost immediately after its publication. This controversy dogged him throughout his career and overshadowed his achievement as a Nobel laureate. However his critics completely misunderstood the book and its intention. The book was intended as a eulogy to a community which experienced great loss in the dark days of the war.


The book is a moving tribute to a courageous people, and it jars with the crude and reductive asides of his critics. It is spectacularly crass for entitled liberals from Western Europe and America to tell him what he should and shouldn`t write about when he has the lived experience as an ethnic minority in a vassal state. The truth is sometimes ugly but that does not mean that it should be censored. It is unfair to surmise that he is a warmonger simply for articulating the Serbian experience. The authenticity of the work is the most important issue to consider in the reputation of any writer. Handke needs to be congratulated rather than condemned for his appointment.