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Down by the River Side by Richard Wright

June 30, 2021 13 comments

The Man Who Saw the Flood and Down by the River Side by Richard Wright. (1961 / 1938) French titles: L’homme qui a vu l’inondation (translated by Jacqueline Bernard et Claude-Edmonde Magny) and Là-bas, près de la rivière (translated by Boris Vian)

Folio has a collection of short books of around 100 pages sold at the unique price of 2€. They usually put together one to three short stories from a writer and for me, it’s a way to discover a new author without reading a full novel or read something short. (obviously).

The one entitled L’homme qui a vu l’inondation by Richard Wright was published in 2007, after the Katrina hurricane hit Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. It includes two short stories, The Man Who Saw the Flood, written in 1961 and more importantly, Down by the River Side, written in 1938. It has a foreword by Julia Wright, the author’s daughter.

Both stories are about floods by the Mississippi river. The Man Who Saw the Flood relates the aftermath of a terrible inundation. A family of black peasants come back to their house, only to find it destroyed, full of mud and with their tools broken and seed rotten. They are hungry and the father and husband has no other choice than go and work for a white employer. It feels like going back to slavery, in an economic way.

Down by the River Side was written in 1938 and is based on the 1927 flood. It opens on a terrible scene: a man is at his house, his wife is in labor and the delivery is difficult. He’s there with a midwife, his mother-in-law and his other child. The water level is increasing at high speed and he regrets to have stayed there when he had a chance to leave. He has sent out Bob to get a boat and his only goal now is to take his wife to the Red Cross hospital in town. This man could be anybody and Wright named him Mann, only to drive the point home, I suppose.

Bob comes back but has stolen a boat from a white man, which is a terrible offense in that part of the country. Mann decides to take the risk and use it anyway. If he doesn’t, they drown in their house.

Wright describes the flood with an implacable accuracy. (He was 19 when the 1927 flood occurred): the dark water, the powerful current and the unrecognizable landscape. It’s hard to know where to row to as almost everything is under water.

Of course, Mann don’t get away with using a white man’s stolen boat, even if it’s a life-and-death situation. The whites show no compassion for his wife. No brotherhood or empathy stems from these extreme circumstances: the whites remain on their side and the black remain niggers to them. No seeing past the color of the skin, even in this devastating flood. The whites are evacuated and the black men are requisitioned to patch the dam with sandbags in last and futile attempt to protect the town from the furious rising waters.

Julia Wright can’t help but making a parallel between this story and the terrible Katrina hurricane and the poor management of its aftermath by the authorities. Let’s be honest, if such a disaster with such a death toll and so many mistakes in the crisis management had happened on a plant, its director would have been trialed and condemned for not ensuring their workers’ safety. The politicians got away with it, no matter how high the number of casualties…

On a lighter note, you’ll see at the beginning of my billet that Down by the River Side has been translated by Boris Vian, writer and jazzman extraordinaire. When I read the title in English, I immediately hear in my mind the eponymous jazz song, a terrible contrast to the scene of desolation brought by the flood. I imagine it’s all silence too, except for the noise of the rushing waters and the relentless rain, a total opposite to its upbeat jazz namesake. This effect is totally lost in translation. The French title, accurately translated from the English, Là-bas près de la rivière, triggers nothing but soothing walks in a calm and chirpy corner in the countryside. The vibe is more “A River Runs Through It” than “murderous brown waters”. Language…

This is 20 Books of Summer #5.

Noah’s Ark by Khaled Al Khamissi – a fresco of Egyptian emigration

June 23, 2021 7 comments

Noah’s Ark by Khaled Al Khamissi (2009) French title: L’Arche de Noé Translated from the Arabic by Soheir Fahmi in collaboration with Sarah Siligaris.

Noah’s Ark by Khabel Al Khamissi is a twelve-chapter book with eleven intertwined stories. Each chapter is about one character, their story and why they decided to emigrate from Egypt. The last chapter is where we meet the narrator, the lady who collected all these stories and explains why all these people hopped on the Noah’s Ark of emigration and how they did it.

The different protagonists choose different countries as their new home: the USA, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Kuwait, Dubai or Iraq. They all have different reasons to leave Egypt behind and I suppose that Khaled Al Khamissi wanted us to have a global picture of the issue.

There’s Ahmad Ezzedine who can’t find a decent paying job after studying law. He decides to emigrate to the USA through chatting up an American woman. The aim is to get her to marry him, obtain his green card and stay. This schemed obliged him to break up with his girlfriend Hagar, and he broke both their hearts in the process.

Hagar emigrates to the USA when her father marries her off to Ayman who owns a restaurant in New Jersey and is back in Egypt for a couple of weeks to shop for a wife. He falls for Hagar and her parents are all too willing to ship her off to America.

We don’t know how Abd el-Latif Awad reached New Jersey but he’s employed by other Egyptians as a cook, a chauffeur, a singer and a handyman. A man of all trades, he’s exploited by other Egyptians and that’s also a sad side of emigration. He doesn’t fit well where he is.

We meet Farid al-Mongui who left to study abroad, another way to get your first visa to the West.

Mortada Al-Baroudi is a teacher in a London university and had to leave Cairo because he was threatened by the government. His philosophy classes don’t refer to the Coran enough. He was as clean as a whistle, so they couldn’t imprison him for something he’d done. He had to emigrate.

Yassine Al-Baroudi was desperate enough to attempt to reach Europe through Lybia. He tries the Mediterranean sea route and almost died in a shipwreck.

Névine Adly never thought she’d have to leave her country but she and her family are Christians. Her daughter fell in love with a Muslim and there’s no hope for this kind of relationship in contemporary Egypt. It’s getting harder to be a Christian woman in Cairo, especially to walk down the streets without a hijab. They now fear for their lives and move to Canada.

Talaat Zohni emigrated to the USA years ago and missed Egypt too much. So he decided to move to Kuwait after living in New York City. Living abroad isn’t that easy.

Hassouna Sabri is from the Nubian minority in Egypt, near the Aswan dam. It’s a very touristic region and lots of people live off tourism. Hassouna relates how Nubians are treated as second zone citizen and how hopeless they feel. Another way to emigrate? Have a love story with a tourist and win a Western passport through marriage.

Then we hear the point of view of a smuggler, Mabrouk Al-Menafi. He explains that he always accompanies the migrants on their trip and that he picks routes through planes and roads. No sea and shipwrecks for him. He details the different techniques and states that he doesn’t feel guilty as he makes sure that his clients arrive safely. He also hammers hard truths: Egypt needs the money sent back home by the diaspora and European countries turn a blind eye to a certain level of illegal immigration because they need the extra arms.

And finally, Sanaa Mahrane emigrates trough the world’s oldest profession and reaches Germany via Georgia through a prostitution network.

Noah’s Ark explains all the reasons why the characters take a huge leap of faith and leave their home behind. The author doesn’t sugarcoat reality: it’s hard to leave everything behind, it’s hard to live in a strange place and it’s hard to adapt to Western culture. All would rather stay in their country if they had a future, if their government made the right decisions for the economy, if all the political and administrative cogs were not gripped by corruption, if there were more freedom of speech and less weight of Islamic ruling.

All the characters are linked but I didn’t try to map out all the relationships. I went with the flow. The narration is very Scheherazade, slipping from one story to the other, from one character to the other until we have studied the Aubusson Tapestry of a group of Egyptian emigrants.

We see a sample of a global population who, educated to not, rich or not, cannot see a future in their home country. It’s explosive. Khaled Al-Khamissi wrote Noah’s Ark in 2009, two years before the Egyptian Revolution that started by huge demonstrations at Tahrir Square in Cairo.

In libri veritas.

The Signal by Ron Carlson – Suspenseful nature writing

June 20, 2021 8 comments

The Signal by Ron Carlson (2019) French title: Le signal. Translated by Sophie Aslanides.

“Meet me,” she said. “You can do that, right?” We’ll make our last trip next month. Meet me, and we’ll fish Clark Lake for the last time.”

Somehow air came to his chest with that and he said quietly, “Deal.” He looked up into her face, the seriousness and the concern. He opened his handand closed it around the little white cup. “I will be there. Cold Creek trailhead.”

He’d been there ten times; this was the tenth time. Every year on the same day, the Ides of September, nine fifteen. The promise had been made that first time and they’d kept it nine times. We’ll do this every year. They weren’t married the first time, and then they had been married eight times, and now they weren’t married again. As far as he knew.

In The Signal, Ron Carlson writes the story of a last hiking and fishing trip between Mack and Vonnie. We’re in Wyoming, in the Wind Rivers Mountain area.

Mack and Vonnie met when they were teenagers. Mack’s father had a ranch and turned it into a dude ranch during ten weeks each summer to bring in additional income and keep the ranch afloat. Vonnie came as a guest with her parent and fell in love with the West. Enough to come back to the area.

As mentioned in the opening quote, Mack and Vonnie had been married eight years when Mack spiraled down into a hole of alcohol and bad decisions. One of them was driving illegal merchandise, including drugs, through Wyoming. He finally got caught, ended up in jail and lost Vonnie in the process.

They are now taking a closure trip to Clarke Lake and the book opens with Mack waiting for Vonnie to show up at their meeting point at the beginning of the trail.

What Vonnie doesn’t know is that Mack also agreed to do a job for Charley Yarnell, a shady entrepreneur. Mack needs the money to keep his family’s ranch. All he has to do is to find a beacon that fell from an airplane. Yarnell gave him a military Blackberry that should detect the beacon as soon as it is within a mile range of it. It sounds simple enough and a way to kill two birds with one stone.

The Signal is divided in six days, one per hiking day. Carlson takes us to the Wind River Mountain trails, lakes and wilderness. Vonnie and Mack take a hike down memory lane, trying to make peace and put an end to their relationship. Vonnie has moved on and lives with Kent now and Mack needs to accept it, even he still loves her.

Their trip takes a bad turn when they encounter aggressive poachers and when Mack’s beacon search proves to be a lot more dangerous than expected.

The book starts as a love autopsy, a cathartic hike to mourn their couple and turns into a suspenseful story as Mack’s side mission collides with their trip.

Mack’s introspection brings him to analyze his past. He was born on a ranch, loved it but was never a rancher. He’s not good with fire arms, not good with cattle and is not cut out to manage a ranch. However, he can’t imagine live anywhere else than on his childhood ranch. He tried to make a living in IT but he was never really successful. His life took a dive when his father died as he lost his human compass and became untethered. His grief engulfed him and he lost his sense of direction.

Ron Carlson’s writing is sumptuous and I wish I had more quotes to share but I read it in translation. Carlson weaves the landscape into Mack and Vonnie’s story. This is their anniversary hike and this outdoor trip is part of their relationship. Nature is what brought them together and now they expect it to heal their wounds to be able to move on. The descriptions of the wilderness and how Mack and Vonnie connect to it and through it are truly excellent.

Carlson is another writer I want to explore.

Highly recommended. Another great find by Gallmeister, with a marvelous translation by Sophie Aslanides.

Vintage by Grégoire Hervier – Highway to guitar heaven and hell

June 16, 2021 9 comments

Vintage by Grégoire Hervier. (2016) Not available in English.

I bought Vintage by Grégoire Hervier at the crime fiction bookstore Un Petit Noir but it’s between crime fiction and literary fiction.

Thomas Dupré works in a classic guitar store and workshop in Paris when his boss sends him to Boleskine House in Scotland to deliver an expensive guitar to a rich collector. Lord Winsley has an impressive collection of classic electric guitars and bought Boleskine House because it used to belong to Jimmy Page.

Lord Winsley owns two protypes of the mythic Gibson guitars Flying V and Explorer. He says that the protype of the Gibson Moderne guitar was stolen from his collection and he wants Thomas to find it and bring it back.

It’s supposed to be worth 10 million euros and he promises 10% as a reward. Thomas sees it as means to pay the bills while he tries to become a professional guitarist.

Thomas embarks on a trip that will take him to Sydney, New York and Chicago but mostly on the US Route 61. Memphis, Nashville, the mythic Crossroads at Clarksdale, Greenwood. In search of the Gibson Moderne, he will discover a forgotten (and fictionnal) blues and rock artist, Li Grand Zombi Robertson. He was an outcast and experimented new techniques of recording music and was ahead of his time.

Vintage is an ode to classic rock and blues music, the one that inspired the Rolling Stones, the Who, Led Zeppelin and so many artists. It brings us to roots of the blues and what we owe to black music of the Deep South.

There are a lot of explanations about classic guitars, their sound and the musicians who played them. Grégoire Hervier is passionate about music and he conveys his love for rock music to the reader. Even if I don’t play the guitar, I was really interested in the history of these mythic instruments and the music attached to them. I even did a playlist of all the songs and artists mentioned in the book.

It was an enjoyable road trip for this reader. OK, he was preaching to the choir since I have in mind to travel along the US Route 61 one day, when I won’t travel with kids under 21 who can’t get into bars and listen to live music.

PS: This is my second 20 Books of Summer read. This one was on the list. 😊

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

June 12, 2021 35 comments

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017) French title: Eleanor Oliphant va très bien. Translated by Aline Azoulay-Pacvoň

With June starts my 20 Books of Summer challenge and what do I do? Read a book that is not on the list. Oh well, Cathy said we could switch some books.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman came in my Kube box for June. It sounded like an easy read and what I needed when I collapse on the couch after a challenging day at work. It fit the easy bill, no worries about that. For the rest… See by yourself.

Eleanor Oliphant is a young woman who lives in self isolation and like a robot. Go to work from Monday to Friday, have a weekly chat with mother, spend the weekend alone, drink some vodka, read books, do housework, rinse, repeat. She’s an introvert, avoids contact with people and doesn’t interact with her colleagues. When she does, she tends to speak her mind and disregard social conventions.

Two things happen at the same time and derail her life from her routine.

She wins concert tickets in a raffle in the office and asks her colleague Billy to go with her. They go and she develops an instant crush on Johnny Lomond, the lead singer of the local band who was playing that night. Eleanor is now convinced he’s her HEA and that she needs to metamorphose into a “normal” woman to be ready when he’ll notice her and obviously fall for her.

Then her computer breaks down and Raymond, the new IT guy in the office, comes to fix it. That day, she stumbles upon Raymond after work, they are walking together on the street when an old man collapses on the pavement. They rescue him and this leads them into a tentative friendship.

Eleanor is weighed down by a personal tragedy that is slowly unveiled as the story progresses. She’s opening up to life and other people, driven by her crush and pushed by Raymond who tricks her into attending social events.

I guess it’s supposed to be a feel-good novel about how much we need other people in our lives, how loneliness is not a life sentence if we make efforts and how we bloom under other humans’ love and friendship. You know, a book full of pearls of wisdom.

Actually, I thought it was a whole necklace of pearls of clichés.

The characters’ jobs cliché: Socially inapt Eleanor is an accountant and awkward Raymond is IT support staff. As a CFO, in the name of the different teams of accountants I managed along the years, I resent the stupid cliché of the mousy female accountant who loves numbers more than people because they are safe. And not all IT people are nerds who spend time at their mom’s and dress poorly.

The socially inapt character. Eleanor aims to be like Grace in Addition by Toni Jordan or like Don Tillman in The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion She doesn’t know how to behave in pubs, at concerts, at weddings… She has no filter… Her colleagues think she’s weird…

The terrible secret. Eleanor has survived a personal drama that shaped up her whole life. She’s a survivor and built her coping mechanisms. Now is time to stop coping, go to the shrink and start living.

The lives-under-a-rock cliché. Eleanor lives in downtown Glasgow, goes to work every day in public transports, shops at Tesco and reads a newspaper daily. And yet she sounds like she’s been dropped from the planet Mars. She’s clueless about almost everything. How is that possible? We are surrounded by information, even when you don’t care about something, you know about it if it’s popular enough. Think of football. You can’t help knowing the names of players or of the national team coach.

The makeover cliché. To conquer her rock singer, Eleanor reads women magazines, goes to the hairdresser and has her long hair cut, gets her nails done and goes to the beautician for a waxing.

The you-don’t-see-what-under-you-nose cliché. Actually, Eleanor’s colleagues really like her, Raymond wants to be more than a friend and she’s more loveable than she thinks.

You get the drift.

I finished it because I was tired, it didn’t require a lot of brain power and it was pleasant enough. I understand why readers find it uplifting but I thought it was clichéed and implausible. Usually, I’m rather an easy audience for light romance books once in a while. But they need better characterization and style than that.

For positive reviews, read Kim’s here and Claire’s here.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – it will knock the wind out of you

June 6, 2021 22 comments

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. (2019) French title: The Nickel Boys.

Boys arrived banged up in different ways before they got to Nickel and picked up more dents and damage during their term. Often graver missteps and more fierce institutions waited. Nickel boys were fucked before, during, and after their time at the school, if one were to characterize the general trajectory.

The Nickel Boys by Colson whitehead is based on the real story of the Florida School for Boys aka the Dozier School.

According to Wikipedia, it was a reform school operated by the state of Florida in the panhandle town of Marianna from January 1, 1900, to June 30, 2011. A second campus was opened in the town of Okeechobee in 1955. For a time, it was the largest juvenile reform institution in the United States. […] Throughout its 111-year history, the school gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff. Despite periodic investigations, changes of leadership, and promises to improve, the allegations of cruelty and abuse continued.

I knew I wasn’t going to read a pleasant story. Whitehead opens his book with the present time, when forensic archeologists from the University of South Florida search for body remains in unofficial graves around the campus.

Then it moves back in time to tell us the story of Elwood Curtis who was sent to Nickel in the 1960s. Elwood was a black boy from Tallahassee. He was quiet, a good student, a hard worker and he had won a scholarship to college. He was on his way to college when he hitchhiked and was picked up by a man driving a stolen car. A policeman arrested them and Elwood was sent to Nickel.

Back home, Elwood was a fervent admirer of Martin Luther King, he had a record of one of his speeches and he was deeply moved and shaped by King’s ideas. The most important ones to him were to have and keep a sense of self-respect and also to commit to non-violence for things to change.

Elwood was ill-prepared for Nickel where there are no rules but arbitrary ones. He stepped up to help a smaller boy who was molested by older ones. It was a set up and he was sent to The White House, the place where boys were beaten up.

We are in the 1960s, Florida is still under the Jim Crow Laws and segregation is in place. At Nickel, the white and black boys live in separate buildings. They have a different name for the White House.

The white boys bruised differently than the black boys and called it the Ice Cream Factory because you came out with bruises of every color. The black boys called it the White House because that was its official name and it fit and didn’t need to be embellished. The White House delivered the law and everybody obeyed.

Elwood had to stay in the infirmary for a couple of weeks after the beating. From what I read on Wikipedia, Whitehead didn’t invent anything, it was like this. The beatings could be so violent that the boys had their underwear embedded in their skin.

Elwood was never the same after that.

Luckily, he befriended Turner who was street smart and had good instincts to navigate the system and land them into a less exposed job than working in the fields. They became part of Jaimie’s crew and they did deliveries in town, mostly of goods stolen from Nickel. Some food donated by the State never reached the boys. They also did repairs, painting jobs for influent people in town. It was a system. This corruption isn’t mentioned on Wikipedia, so I can’t tell if it stems from the writer’s imagination or not. It sounds plausible, though. The leading figures in town knew everything, they were part of a system and it was the law of silence. They stuck together against the authorities. I can’t help thinking that the State of Florida chose to turn a blind eye.

Segregation was in full force, with its injustice and its sheer stupidity. See for yourself:

Their leader was a quiet-natured boy named Jaimie, who had the spindly, undernourished frame common to Nickel students. He bounced around Nickel a lot—his mother was Mexican, so they didn’t know what to do with him. On his arrival, he was put in with the white kids, but his first day working in the lime fields he got so dark that Spencer had him reassigned to the colored half. Jaimie spent a month in Cleveland, but then Director Hardee toured one day, took a look at that light face among the dark faces, and had him sent back to the white camp. Spencer bided his time and tossed him back a few weeks later. “I go back and forth,” Jaimie said as he raked up pine needles into a mound. He had the screwed-down smile of the rickety-toothed. “One day they’ll make up their minds, I suppose.”

I remember reading something similar in The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé. Black people having a light skin and being obliged to live in the white neighborhoods where they knew no one.

For Elwood, Turner and all the boys who had to live there, it was even harder if you were black. You can see in Nickel Boys the –alas—usual mechanisms of camps and abuse. When the boys arrive, they think there are rules:

Right now, all of you are Grubs. We have four ranks of behavior here—start as a Grub, work your way up to Explorer, then Pioneer, and finally, Ace. Earn merits for acting right, and you move on up the ladder. You work on achieving the highest rank of Ace and then you graduate and go home to your families.”

(It reminded me of the camp system in Bless the Beasts and Children by Glendon Swarthout It wasn’t a legal reformatory camp but the spirit was the same. It lets me think that it was the mindset of the time and that common people found normal to reform boys in such a way.)

But Elwood soon realized that the rules are a joke. The wardens do as they please and the boys live in constant fear. The rules change all the time and without any warning. You never know if you’re going to breach some unknown rule or if something you’re used to doing hasn’t suddenly become forbidden. And since punishment can lead you to the White House…

For Elwood, this system is his undoing. He wants to believe that he has a chance to go out if he behaves properly, he needs to hope that things will improve if he follows the rules. His character was shaped by King’s speeches and he tries to practice what King preaches. He thinks that self-respect is important for his dignity and that quiet but persistent mind resistance will undermine the Nickel institution. Elwood believes in King’s speeches about respect, about loving your enemy to make a difference. But hardship and abuse shake up his faith in King:

Elwood tried to get his head around it, now that it was no longer the abstraction floating in his head last spring. It was real now. Throw us in jail, and we will still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities after midnight hours, and drag us out onto some wayside road, and beat us and leave us half-dead, and we will still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. The capacity to suffer. Elwood—all the Nickel boys—existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

A tall order, indeed. Turner is different, let optimistic, more realistic and cynic.

You can change the law but you can’t change people and how they treat each other. Nickel was racist as hell—half the people who worked here probably dressed up like the Klan on weekends—but the way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer. It was Spencer and it was Griff and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people.

Turner is right. It’s easy to hide behind a “system” or to say it was “like that back in the day”. I was shocked and horrified by the abuse against the boys in Nickel. But I knew I was going to read something horrible about this school and I braced for it. I expected what I read. What took me by surprised and knocked the wind out of me is an anecdote from Elwood’s high school days at Lincoln High:

On the first day of the school year, the students of Lincoln High School received their new secondhand textbooks from the white high school across the way. Knowing where the textbooks were headed, the white students left inscriptions for the next owners: Choke Nigger! You Smell. Eat Shit. September was a tutorial of the latest epithets of Tallahassee’s white youth, which, like hemlines and haircuts, varied year to year. It was humiliating to open a biology book, turn to the page on the digestive system, and be confronted with Drop Dead NIGGER, but as the school year went on, the students of Lincoln High School stopped noticing the curses and impolite suggestions. How to get through the day of every indignity capsized you in a ditch? One learned to focus ones’ attention.

The secondhand textbooks thing is shocking enough in itself. But these insults stem from deep-bone hatred. There are gratuitous. The system allows to treat black students as second zone citizen but it is people who write insults in textbooks, not the system. I thought about the Black Lives Matter movement and all we hear about racism in the USA and said to myself “They’re never going to move from this if it was so ingrained and if they don’t do a federal sort of Truth and Reconciliation commission and put everything in the open.”

The Nickel Boys is an excellent book. It’s short, it packs a lot of information, the characters are engaging and it’s thought-provoking. No wonder why it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

PS: Serendipity. I’m writing this billet and just heard about a similar story in Canada with the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

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