Autumn must be the best season for everyone who wants to discuss books and authors. The world’s largest book fair in Frankfurt has just ended, and the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded a couple of weeks ago, this year with two prizes since last year’s prize was postponed due to a trust and management crisis in the awarding institution, the Swedish Academy. The 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature went to Olga Tokarczuk (57), a Polish writer on the left, who writes about political issues without therefore being a political writer; the 2019 Prize went to Peter Hanke (77), and Austrian writer who a few decades ago settled in Paris, France. They are both universal writers discussing issues without borders. They base their works on knowledge and facts, thoughts and feelings, fantasy and imagination, and much more that make great writers’ stories great.

When Olga Tokarczuk was interviewed by Swedish Television (SVT) about her large historical trilogy, ‘The Books of Jacob’, she said that there is not such a thing as a ‘historical novel’. It is always an interpretation of the past. Even if somebody from the past were here, what would be told would be selective, based on what one remembers, and how it is remembered, digested and retold. It is fantasy and reality in a mixture, in ordinary people’s minds, and in writers’ minds.

When we try to understand events and actions in the past, maybe several hundred years ago, we lack the real context of the time; the sounds, the smells, the worries and joys of people, the hustle and bustle at work places, the abuses of the strong and wealthy against the poor and worthless, the tenderness, the roughness, and so on. Even today, when we read about people in different places, classes, situations and backgrounds, we can only grasp and understand a piece of reality – the rest is left to fantasy and our recreation of reality.

On the SVT literature programme ‘Babel’, a few distinguished writers and critiques discussed Olga Tokarczuk’s books, and one of them said that a particular strength in her work is that she manages to tell the stories so that the readers feel they are part of it all, almost being there. But he added that he was a bit worried about that ability, too, almost an ability of deceit, he said.

The other Nobel Prize for Literature winner announced this year was Peter Handke. Nobody questions his literary eminence, not the least in his earlier works, including his book about his mother’s self-inflicted passing in 1971, ‘A Sorrow Beyond Dreams’ (in German, ‘Wunschloses Unglück’). It is both a psychological and private story, and it is a sociological and public story.

Later, Hanke’s general and political judgement came into question when he altered facts and reality about ethnicity and religion in the Yugoslav Wars (1991-2001). He did not admit the massacres that happened to Muslims. Till this day, he has not apologized or corrected what he wrote; he has not changed his fantasy into reality. As an explanation, it has been said that much of his account had to do with giving the Yugoslav people recognition after WWII, shedding light on their fight within the country against Nazism, which the West didn’t recognize. He grew up in Austria near the Yugoslavian border to a mother who came from the other side

Like Olga Tokarczuk, albeit in different ways, Peter Handke is a ‘master of deceit’, well, of aesthetic elegance and the use words that create a new reality, sometimes even beyond truth. The ‘real reality’ is recreated into a ‘literary reality’. Is that less real? Most of us would say that it is, but then, maybe not. We don’t live in many places at the same time, one only lives here and now, in own cosmology, context and Zeitgeist.

Hanke has been criticized for absence of political and psychological depth. I don’t think that is fair, and it is a very arrogant criticism, even if we disagree with his political misjudgements. Besides, Hanke belongs to the heroes of my youth, the time when people on the left dreamt of a socialist world with compassion and equality, not the superficial pretence and segregation of capitalism that we got.

Handke wrote ‘Wings of Desire’ (‘Der Himmel über Berlin’) in 1987, before the fall of the East-West Wall. How can we say he lacks compassion? Perhaps he belongs to the past, and perhaps it was a bit old fashioned to give him the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. But since they Swedish Institute had not gotten around to doing it earlier, it was about time, too. And, in comments to the prize, Handke has said that he is not a winner; the prize is not for him, but for the literature he has created.

In 2014, Handke won the International Ibsen Award, and his works have in Norway been published by Pelikanen, a publishing house established in 2010 by Norwegian best-selling author Karl Ove Knausgaard (50), and his brother Yngve. Karl Ove Knausgaard thinks highly of Hanke and has been influenced by him when writing ‘true life stories’, well, when making those stories into literature, ‘reality fiction’, as it is now termed. In Norwegian, this half-new genre is called ‘virkelighetslitteratur’. In it, we don’t know what it is that is fantasy and what it is that is fiction. Yet, we read it like anything, maybe because of our nosiness, wanting to see what is under the bed sheets of our neighbours! Knausgaard sold 500,000 copies of his series entitled ‘My Struggle’, in Norwegian, ‘Min kamp’, and that is one book for every ten Norwegian. It wasn’t always true, it was fictional literature, but it could have been true. It was fantasy and reality at the same time.

Certainly, in Norway, too, Handke was a controversial recipient of the International Ibsen Award. And his comment about the Norwegian icon was maybe meant to be more sarcastic fun than truth: Handke suggested that Ibsen’s acclaimed plays are rather like TV scripts, not quite world literature; they are organized in simple stories, making quick points and advertising opinions. And then, maybe it is good that icons are questioned, that inconvenient truths are told by rude colleagues? Still, Ibsen keeps being performed worldwide only second to William Shakespeare in frequency. So, there must be something about him.

Since I am now waving the Norwegian flag, let me also mention the Norwegian writer and winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature, Knut Hamsun (1859-1952). He sympathized with the German regime during WWII and was heavily criticised and fined for it after the war. In spite of his political mistakes, especially in old age, he remains a great writer, judged on literary criteria. Great writers are not necessarily great politicians.

Let us celebrate the fantasy and reality in the works of the winners of the 2018 and 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. Next year, or a year later, maybe it is Asia’s turn to be decorated with such prestigious laurels.