The Art Of Deception
The Dundurn Group
This, in fact, is one of the very many fascinating truths Kokis arrives at during The Art of Deception, his tale (set in the early ’70s) of a gifted Montreal art student, Max Willem, whose knack for imitation – he produces a near-convincing sheaf of “undiscovered” drawings by Egon Schiele – comes to the attention of a vast hoaxing cartel. Willem is duly recruited, undergoes a gruelling apprenticeship in Antwerp under the tutelage of a certain genius named Guderius (any act of calculating deception, it seems, will often force one to work harder than a genuine artist) and soon becomes a master forger running a line of lucrative put-up jobs. Or does so, that is, until all the pleasurable faking and fabricating begin generating fits of conscience (“each time I plunged further into action for its own sake, incapable of reflecting on the meaning of my folly”) and – most disastrously – Willem’s own art, along with his vocation for it, suffers attrition:
An ominous barrier arose between my work and my desire whenever I tried to avoid copying the manner of some artist. Everything became vague and intangible, and I didn’t know what I was looking for. Beauty was denied me; it was only revealed to others, in the artworks of another age.
Kokis thus eagerly explores the question of art’s artificiality and its relationship to truth. That eagerness, however, requires a caveat. This is chiefly a novel of ideas. Novelistically, in other words, it never accelerates into something accidental and alive. The book begins with a not-quite-grasped-at notion of what Willem calls art’s “dissembling and disguise” which it then, over 350 pages, efficiently and methodically lays bare. The good news is that there’s an intense theatricality to the writing (and this requires a tip of the hat to translator W. Donald Wilson) which keeps the characters both embodiments and props, and the plots both vivid enactments and formal lectures. (Lessons which include the best way to properly “age” a canvas, and the paperwork tricks involved in persuasivly authenticating a forged work!) But all of this is carried along in Kokis’s own unhurried, one-idea-at-a-time consciousness, and at its best moments the storytelling assumes the poise, originality, and discipline of a really good, slow-burning satire. mRb