The Araki Yasusada Hoax

Was Dickens really a woman? And did he come from Belgium? Only joking. But it wouldn't be the first time we've been fooled by a writer, says John Dugdale

The Guardian Features Page

The Guardian
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I met my conman on a station platform, awaiting a connecting train back to college. Swiftly inferring that I was a student, `Alan' told me that the entire computer network for the university's science complex had crashed. A digital Red Adair, he had been summoned to mend it.

Owning nothing more valuable than a Sony Walkman, I was plainly not the kind of mark he was really looking for. Never wholly taken in, I nonetheless lent him credibility by apparently accepting him as bona fide and providing a college room he could visit, hoping to meet juicier prey. His eventual target was a chic but flaky American, a southern belle over on a summer course. After persuading her they should buy a house together, he cashed a A10,000 cheque she gave him as a deposit and did a runner.

What was fascinating about Alan was his compulsion to multiply risk, introducing suckers to sceptics, constantly teasing you through clues or blatant whoppers. He would recommend a book recounting a violent criminal's escape from jail, point out how easily your wallet could be stolen, or tell bizarre tales of second-generation Nazi units operating in Vietnam or Yugoslavia, as if to test what it would take for you to call his bluff. For a conman needs disbelievers who can recognise his skill alongside believers who only see his charm; appreciative readers as well as dupes. Otherwise fraud would be a lonely business, like unpublished writing or unseen art.

I was reminded of Alan when reading Marjorie Perloff's analysis of a recent poetry scandal for the Boston Review, alerted to it by the Poetry Review's forthcoming hoax issue. Last July, the American Poetry Review devoted a lengthy feature to the verse of Araki Yasusada , an avant-garde Japanese poet whose wife and daughter had been killed by the Hiroshima blast, and whose notebooks had been posthumously discovered and translated. His poetry `takes my breath away', gushed one instant devotee, the hapless Ron Silliman.

The scam soon began to unravel, with Kent Johnson (a college professor and poetpower over several decades.

In an era of conmen statesmen, of the media as the arena for competing fictions, of hyper-real urban spaces and fake art, the hoax becomes the mimetic mirror, the form that tells the truth - about this falsified public environment, and about ourselves as gullible information consumers.

When Peter Mandelson, as the high-priest of the millennium, is not a Steve Bell fantasy but reality, or Carlton TV's monarchy debate surpasses the imaginings of The Day Today, the hoax - postmodernism with attitude, parody with claws - comes into its own. As Umberto Eco says of parody, `This is its mission: it must never be afraid of going too far. If its aim is true, it simply heralds what others will later produce, unblushing, with impassive and assertive gravity.' The hoax issue of Poetry Review appears on July 25.

1. The Bronte sisters, who for some time pretended to be male (the Bell brothers) in order to get their work published 2. as did Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot.

3. Rupert Murdoch, who, with the help of historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, fell for the Hitler Diaries, which were actually banged out on demand by a forger who specialised in Nazi memorabilia.

4. Serial hoaxer Chris Morris, who persuaded Sir Rhodes Boyson to agree that having a huge Bat in the sky over London (`as they do in New York') would help reduce crime.

5. Doris Lessing, who in 1981 pretended to be a first-time novelist named Jane Somer. `Somer's' book, The Diary Of A Good Neigbour, did the rounds of the publishing houses, and was rejected by all but one. Lessing came clean three years later.

6. John Keats, who, presented with fabricated poems by an imaginary 15th-century poet named Rowley, called them `purest English genius'. The poems were actually written by Thomas Chatterton.

7. Muriel Gray, who hosted a five-part Channel 4 series Art Is Dead, Long Live TV, which dealt with (among other artists) Kenneth Hutcheson, who sculpted vomit and rotting human flesh. The series was revealed to be a hoax, and attracted derisory newspaper reports. `We fooled the Press, and they just can't stand that,' said Gray.


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Last modified: Wednesday, 18-Jul-2007 16:29:20 EDT