The Art of Deception

By Carmine Starnino

A review of The Art Of Deception by Sergio Kokis

Published on October 1, 2002

The Art Of Deception
Sergio Kokis

The Dundurn Group

For all their say-so existence, art forgeries are almost always as satisfying as the honest article. Indeed, those convinced by them frequently offer them up as the profoundest example’s of the artist’s work. This happens because forgeries are wish-fulfillments: they exist because we will them to and they succeed because they are a perfect mirror for our moods. In other words, it is the deep desire to be duped that determines the success of the con, not the con’s credibility. Forgeries are thus designed to flatter the very prejudices we draw on when trusting a suggested truth; more precisely, forgeries are designed to put to sleep the very vigilance that would endanger the continued life of their lie. Or, as Sergio Kokis puts it in his new novel dedicated to such illusionism (and the mutual, unspoken reciprocity of needs that sustains it), “reality counts for nothing compared to the desire of a person who has made up their mind to believe.”

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

Carmine Starnino is a Montreal poet whose latest book of poems is "With English Subtitles" (Gaspereau 2004).



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