A week in books

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The Independent Culture
This epistle is faxed from Thessalonika. But reversing St Paul can't compare with the fantastical April Fool's Day joke that took place here on Tuesday: 32 writers from all over Europe converged on the City of Culture 1997 to speak, for 15 minutes each, on Arfur Jeof Arens, the 19th-century writer and defiant thinker.

Never heard of him? So defiant was this man, he never existed, save in the imagination of the City of Culture's literary committee, who supplied us with a preposterous CV in advance. In a vast and crowded university auditorium, we battled it out. I batted for Britain, with deadpan translations booming in my ear through equipment so antique, St Paul might have used it.

Just by turning up, we were all colluding in the joke. For instance: every symposium must have its highly strung female English novelist, watching with an ironic eye. (My story about Arens's illegitimate daughter was less vital.)

The day started with a hoax row during the pompous opening speeches, as the organiser called on the artistic director to resign. There were many such staged interventions. When a drunken student vociferously complained that he had learnt nothing about Arens, I was convinced he was bogus - but then assured that he was genuine. I'm still not certain.

For the professional surrealists, it was all in a day's work. Less overtly bizarre contributions were more subversive. Was the solemn German merely doing his set exercise seriously, or was he brilliantly acting the earnest, nit-picking German? Likewise the professor of psychology who delivered a Freudian analysis of a non-existent text, all sticky-up hair and staring eyes. "He's like that all the time," one person said. "It was a great performance," said another.

Arens had the last laugh. When, at the end of the longest April Fool in my life, we toasted him in ouzo, I still didn't know why the event had been organised. Or why I had eagerly taken part. Deadpan and booming, it was all Greek to me.

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