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Sad to be back in the office after the holidays? Have a good laugh with Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan.

September 4, 2016 15 comments

Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan. (2006) Not available in French. Translation tragedy. 

When I woke up that Sunday after getting fired Marlene was dead. I was in a salty bed and two detectives were staring down at me. Three hours later I was jerking off in a police station bathroom. It was not the resurrection I’d been hoping for.

Neilan_ApathyIsn’t that a promising setting? Meet Shane a professional drifter who moves around a lot, shies away from responsibilities and roots. He tries to fly under the radar but this time he failed. He’s in custody because a woman, Marlene, is dead and he’s the police’s favorite suspect. He starts recalling the flow of events that brought him there and we’re introduced to a menagerie of characters: Doug, the dentist who faints on his patients while they’re on his chair. Marlene, his deaf assistant who loves karaoke. Gwen who likes rough sex with her boyfriends. The janitor’s wife who needs sex services. The janitor, who needs his wife to be serviced.

And Shane finds himself mixed in their lives. He’s Doug’s patient and befriends Marlene on his frequent trips to the dentist. A former college rugby player, Gwen picks him as a boyfriend and he lets himself be tackled in her rounds of TLC.

“Oh my god, Shane!” she said, and hit me with an open field tackle of a hug that lifted me off my stool and cracked two of my ribs. I saw her coming at the last second and braced myself. Otherwise I would’ve been paralyzed for life.

Since he can’t pay his full rent, the janitor in his apartment complex asks him into shag his wife every Tuesday. Shane doesn’t enjoy it but he complies, gets his a discount on his rent and comments with a deadpan sense of humor.

Still, after a few Tuesdays, just from sheer repetition, the sex had marginally improved. We were still dead fish being swung by an off duty clown, but we weren’t just any kind of fish. And even if we weren’t two majestic salmon, glistening in the sun as we leaped up a waterfall into the mouth of a huge fucking grizzly bear, we were at least tuna. Someone, somewhere would be glad to catch and eat us.

Under Gwen’s recommendation, Shane starts as a temp among the support staff in the insurance company she works for, Panopticon Insurance. Now have you noticed? If a character must have a boring job, they’re either an accountant or work for an insurance company. Imagine what a writer would do with an accountant working for an insurer. Perhaps nothing because their character would be in a boredom-induced coma. Or it would be the ultimate modernist novel. Stream of unconsciousness. Zzzzzzz.

Anyway, back to Shane and his temp job at Panopticon because that’s the funniest part of the novel. His job is to alphabetize contracts but soon he specializes in what we call in French “vertical filing” ie, putting things straight into the trash. So our Shane has a lot of time on his hands and he divides it between making miniature gallows with paper clips and perfecting the art of sleeping in the restrooms.

It was early on, before I knew the physiology of sleeping on a toilet bowl and its effects, and what I needed to do to counteract them: how long to hold on to the quadriplegic bars before trying to walk on my own, how to maximize my momentum without tripping over my dead legs, how to use my lack of balance to my advantage, which I never really figured out. It was all a matter of timing and rhythm, like tap dancing. In those first few days I knew how to shuffle ball step, but I was wearing the wrong shoes.

He makes cutting remarks on Panopticon, the cubicles, the team’s manager Andrew, his colleagues and makes fun of corporate life in general and management techniques in particular.

The boss’s name was Andrew, but he didn’t like the term boss. He referred to himself as the team facilitator.

It is absolutely hilarious, especially when Andrew organizes a “cube warming” party when their department gets a brand new cubicle or when Shane describes Inspiration Alley, the row between the cubicles. It’s covered with inspirational quotes from great leaders to uplift team spirit. As Shane says

If Tolstoy were alive today and working as a temp at Panopticon Insurance, he’d say that all insurance companies are the same, then throw himself through an eighteenth-story window and plunge to his death in a hail of glass and shattered dignity. I worked on the eighteenth floor, but the windows were too thick.

Shane’s professional wanker. Apathy is his way-of-life, an art-of-life, even. It’s his driving force and nothing can sway him. He’s completely whacked and he’s one of these characters totally oblivious that something’s seriously wrong with them. But you get to know his brand of crazy around a comment here and there.

He looked at me the way my mom did the time she caught me officiating the wedding of Mr. Potato Head and He-Man. I had just said, “You may kiss the bride,” and when I looked up she was standing in the doorway. I was fourteen years old, and I was not wearing any pants.

He’s fucked-up and can’t help stealing saltshakers wherever he goes:

I was stealing saltshakers again. Ten, sometimes twelve a night, shoving them in my pockets, hiding them up my sleeves, smuggling them out of bars and diners and anywhere else I could find them. In the morning, wherever I woke up, I was always covered in salt. I was cured meat. I had become beef jerky. Even as a small, small child, I knew it would one day come to this.

(Btw, if you ever want to get rid of a French guest: serve them beef jerky with root beer and Jello as a dessert. They’ll run away quickly.)

Being in Shane’s head is fun. He might be totally immature and crazy but he makes spot on observations about humans. I chuckled, laughed out loud at his outrageous comments. The scenes in Doug’s office are hilarious. The corporate part put me in stitches. The story comes together in the end, the reader gets the whole picture and sees how fate framed Shane.

I loved everything in Apathy and Other Small Victories. The crazy plot. The amazing characters. Neilan’s punchy style and impeccable sense of humor. It’s going to be on my best-of-the-year list, I’m sure.

I read this thanks to Guy, who picked it after Max Barry mentioned it as a fantastic read. Check out Guy’s review here. Highly recommended in case of depressing weather, hard times at work, dire need of a good laugh.

 

Spanish Lit Month: Exemplary crimes by Max Aub

July 20, 2016 23 comments

Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub. (1956) Original Spanish title: Crímenes ejemplares. French title: Crimes exemplaires. (Translated by Danièle Guibbert.)

Après, ici, n’importe quel malheureux petit mort, ils l’appellent cadavre. But then here, any tiny little dead body, they call it a stiff.

This is my first participation to Spanish Lit Month organized by Richard and Stu. I started with Exemplary Crimes by Max Aub.

aub_crimes_exemplairesMax Aub was born in 1903. His mother was French and his father German but he adopted the Spanish language when his family moved to Valencia in 1914. After the Spanish Civil War, he moved to Mexico where he remained until his death in 1972. He worked as a salesman, he was the one who ordered Guernica to Picasso for the Republican Government and worked with André Malraux. Among other things.

Exemplary Crimes is a Literary UFO, one of those books that don’t belong to a pre-defined category. In France, it won the Grand Prix de l’Humour Noir in 1981 and that says a lot about it. It is a cultural and literary prize created in 1957 that rewards works of black humour. Raymond Queneau used to be in the jury and my dear Quino also won it in 1981, in the Comics category.

So what is Exemplary Crimes exactly? It is a collection of 130 assassinations, all done in good faith according to their perpetrator. Each is described by a phrase, a paragraph or a page maximum. Each is the confession of the murderer who tells how or why they killed their victim. They all have what they consider a good justification for their deed. They don’t feel guilty or they try to convince themselves that their victim deserved it. Sometimes it’s written in a very candid tone:

Je l’ai d’abord tué en rêve, ensuite je n’ai pu m’empêcher de le faire vraiment. C’était inévitable. I first killed him in my dreams and then I couldn’t help myself, I killed him for real. It was inevitable.

It can be almost poetic in its twisted way…

– Plutôt mourir! me dit-elle. Et dire que ce que je voulais par-dessus tout, c’était lui faire plaisir. I’d rather die, she said. And me, I wanted to please her above all.

Or sometimes they’re totally unapologetic in front of an imaginary jury at their trial:

Qu’est-ce qu’ils veulent de plus ? Il était accroupi. Il me présentait ses arrières d’une manière si ridicule et il était à ma portée de manière si parfaite que je n’ai pu résister à la tentation de le pousser. What more do they want? He was crouched. He presented me with his rear-end with such a ridiculous manner and he was within my reach so perfectly that I couldn’t resist the temptation to push him.

Indeed, what is there to understand? Isn’t that obvious to anyone? Others will show you that there was no other way out. Their victim called it upon themselves.

Pourquoi essayer de le convaincre ? C’était un sectaire de la pire espèce, comme s’il se prenait pour Dieu le Père. Il avait la cervelle bouchée. Je la lui ai ouverte d’un seul coup, pour lui faire voir comment on apprend à discuter. Que celui qui ne sait pas se taise. Why try to convince him? He was a sectarian of the worst species, as if he were God himself. His brain was clogged up. I opened it for him all at once, just to teach him how to talk things out. Ignorant people should shut up.

Oh the irony. Some try to be rational…

Il m’avait mis un morceau de glace dans le dos. Le moins que je puisse faire était de le refroidir. He had put an ice cube in my back. The least I could do was to ice him off.

…or to explain how exasperated they were when they committed their crime. They try to show how their victim pushed them over the edge with their obnoxious behaviour.

Et jusque dans la salle de bains : et ci et ça et autre chose. Je lui ai enfoncé la serviette dans la bouche pour qu’elle se taise. Elle n’est pas morte de ça, mais de ne plus pouvoir parler: les paroles ont éclaté à l’intérieur. And even in the bathroom: and this and that and blah blah blah. I shoved a towel down her throat to shut her up. She didn’t die from this but from not being able to talk anymore. The words burst inside of her.

Some premeditated their crime and regret more getting caught than killing someone. I loved this one, it reminded me of Olivier Norek, a French crime fiction writer who is also a police officer.

Je l’ai empoisonné parce que je voulais son siège à l’Académie. Je ne pensais pas qu’on le découvrirait. Mais il y a eu ce romancier de merde et qui de surcroît est commissaire de police. I poisoned him because I wanted his chair at the Academy. I didn’t think they would find out. But there was this crappy novelist who’s also a superintendent.

Imagine the investigation in the corridors of the Academy and the crime investigator turned writer who unearths a crime in a community who supposed to be very civilized.

I read Exemplary Crimes during the football UEFA Euro 2016 in France and I couldn’t help chuckling when I read this one:

C’était comme si c’était fait ! Il n’y avait qu’à pousser le ballon, avec ce gardien de but qui n’était pas à sa place…Et il l’a envoyé par-dessus le filet ! Et ce but était décisif ! Nous nous foutions complètement de ces putains de minables de la Nopalera. Si le coup de pied que je lui ai balancé l’a envoyé dans l’autre monde, qu’il apprenne au moins à shooter comme Dieu le demande. It was almost done! He just had to push the ball, with this goalie who wasn’t in his place…And he sent it over the net! And this was a decisive goal! We didn’t give a damn of these bloody losers from Nopalera. If the kick I threw his way sent him into the other world, let him learn how to shoot as God requires.

Thankfully, I don’t think any football player met the same fate during the competition.  I also thought about all the guns circulating in the USA when I read this short one:

Je l’ai tué parce que j’avais un révolver. J’avais tant de plaisir à le tenir dans ma main ! I killed him because I had a gun. I had so much pleasure holding it!

Chilling.

A last one. A husband was killed because he broke the household’s precious soup tureen.

Je ne l’ai pas fait avec le pic à glace. Monsieur, non, je l’ai fait avec le fer à repasser. I didn’t do it with the ice pick. No Sir, I did it with the flatiron.

We’re far from glamourous Sharon Stone and her Basic Instincts. We’re closer to shrew territory or to Susanita’s mother in Quino’s comic strip at best. Plus soup was involved, which brings me back to Quino too.

I had a lot of fun reading this and I highly recommend it as a summer read. For French readers, it’s like reading a book by Desproges. For English speaking readers, I’m sorry to report that it is not available in English. Another Translation Tragedy. However, the texts are short and it can be a good way to practice your French or your Spanish if you feel like it.

PS: I did the English translations the best I could. I hope they reflec the tone of the original.

Danish humour

July 26, 2015 16 comments

Little treatise of the privileges of a mature man and other nocturnal thoughts by Flemming Jensen (2011) Not available in English, I think. French title: Petit traité des privilèges de l’homme mûr et autres réflexions nocturnes. (Translated from the Danish by Andreas Saint Bonnet.)

Aveu réalisteLe quotient intellectuel global sur terre est constant.

Il n’y a que la population qui augmente

Realistic confessionThe global intellectual quotient on earth is steady.

Only the population increases.

The narrator of Jensen’s chronicles is a mature man. His bladder doesn’t last a full night now, so he has to get up at night and he takes advantage of these nocturnal moments to think and have a little snack. Because, as he says,

Bon sang, si on n’avait pas le droit de se faire un casse-croûte nocturne, pourquoi y aurait-il de la lumière dans le frigo ? Damn it, if you weren’t allowed to have a nightly snack, why would there be light in the fridge?

JensenSnacking at night is an art. He’s on a diet so he has to be silent not to wake up his wife and be wise in what food he eats so that she doesn’t realize there isn’t as much left as should be. He explains how he sneaks out of their bedroom, lurks into the kitchen, doesn’t use the light bulbs but candles to avoid detection. The whole ritual is hilarious.

Our narrator will discuss light philosophical matters, talk about his children and grand-children, the EU, the war in Irak, religion, TV shows and all kinds of topics that go through his mind. Jensen has a great sense of humour, I laughed out loud lots of times. He’s famous in Denmark for his one-man-shows and his sketches for the TV and the radio. The reader can feel it in the way it is written. It could be a one-man-show. (For French readers, it sounds like a show by Gad Elmaleh.)

It’s full of funny passages, aphorisms, rants and hilarious suggestions.

Sur la foi.Les gens très religieux pèchent tout autant que nous autres. Leur religion leur interdit simplement de le savourer. About faith.Very religious people sin as much as us. Their religion forbids them to take pleasure in it, that’s all.

It’s not the book of the century but it’s entertaining and funny. Sometimes we just need a good laugh.

I denounce humanity by Frigyes Karinthy

March 17, 2015 31 comments

Je dénonce l’humanité (1912-1929) by Frigyes Karinthy. Not available in English.

Because we only run left and right in this tormented world. We hop high and low without thinking of the particular path our soul is taking in an invisible world…

Karinthy_humanitéJe dénonce l’humanité is a collection of very short stories (2-3 pages each) written by Frigyes Karinthy between 1912 and 1934. There are 39 stories gathered in this volume. Fifteen were written before the Great War, four during the war and the rest in the 1920s. These delightful texts are full of fun and of every brand of humour possible: comedy, irony, absurd, self-deprecating humour, black humour. Karinthy plays with paradoxes, points out inconsistencies. He made me laugh-out-loud, chuckle under my breath in trains, attracting intrigued looks from fellow passengers.

The stories cover domestic situations, they mock the Hungarian society and talk about the Great War through circuitous paths.

I loved the one about a boy struggling with his homework. He’s in front of a math problem and his father stops to help him. He wants to show off how clever he is and he starts reading the wording. He realises he’s clueless but he doesn’t want to lose face. So he turns the tables on his son, accusing him of being distracted and not enough into his work. He forges his own reasons to yell and leave his son to his own devices. As soon as he’s done, it dawns on him that his father did exactly the same when he was a little boy and he understands his father was also clueless…

There’s another fantastic one about a man engaging conversation with a stranger in a café. He makes a heartfelt speech on the importance of being discreet. He gives as an example his affair with a married woman. The more he tries to hammer his point, the more he discloses private information about the woman until he lets her name slip. Then the other man reveals his name and…he’s this woman’s husband!

Black humour seeps through one story written during the war. Two men chat in a café –there are a lot of cafés in Budapest—about the use of gas in the trenches. After a few paragraphs, we understand that the man talking is not worried about the use of gas on the soldiers but he’s worried about his business. Indeed, he makes a living out of exterminating bugs and all this mustard gas kills bugs, who, poor things, don’t wear a mask. It destroys the bugs and jeopardises the future of his business.

The stories are also a mirror of their time, like in At the Neurologist’s where Karinthy makes fun of the enthusiasm for Freud’s theories.

I gazed pensively and said:

– I like yellow broad bean soup.

My friend, who’s been practicing Freud’s psychoanalysis lately looked at me sharply.

– Why do you say that you like yellow broad bean soup?

– Because I like it, I said truthfully

– Didn’t you date a blue-haired woman when you were six?

– I don’t remember. Why?

– Because blue and yellow are complementary colours. One never says anything without a reason: it’s one of psychoanalysis’s accepted facts. Every assertion is either unintentional repressed sadism or repressed masochism. Everything stems from something sexual and can be reduced to childhood memories. You dated a blue-haired woman, therefore you like yellow broad bean soup.

The stories also reflect the history of Hungary. In some tales, people pay in koronas, in others in pengoes. The currency of Hungary was koronas until 1927. Then it was replaced by pengoes until it was changed for the forint in 1946. Three different banknotes and coins in fifty years. And by the way, there’s a fantastic story based on currency. It dates back to 1917 and it’s actually a letter written by a critic to the Hungarian central bank in Budapest. The critic requests a sample of the new 1000 koronas banknote for the sole purpose of writing a review about its artistic form. Of course, getting a “review copy” of a 1000 koronas banknote wouldn’t hurt his wallet…

As you’ve guessed by now, Karinthy is extremely funny, witty and literate. There’s a change in tone between the stories written before the war and the ones written after. His natural confidence in progress and humanity was swiped away by the butchery of the war and its devastating aftermath. Industrialised killings made their toll on his morale. Karinthy saw himself as an heir of the Encyclopaedists. He had faith in Reason and science. His experience with war sounds like a wakeup call and I can’t help thinking about Candide. The Great War rattled his faith in men. Karinthy died in 1938, so he never witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust. I bet this would have shattered his faith in humanity for good.

I loved this book and I’m extremely sorry to report that these stories are not available in English. We French readers owe the delight to read them to the publisher Viviane Hamy. They also publish Dezső Kosztolányi and I’m pleased that Frigyes Karinthy is reunited with his dear friend Dezső on the shelves of their French publisher.

For French readers, I’ll say that Viviane Hamy advertises that book with a jacket which asks “What if Desproges was Hungarian?” It’s true, you can imagine Desproges telling Karinthy’s books on stage. The acerbic tone, the absurdity of life, the peskiness of people and the black humour would have suited him.

PS : For non-French readers, Pierre Desproges was a comedian who used to do one-man shows. He had a nasty but oh-so-funny brand of humour. He was ruthless when it came to denounce the stupidity of the human species. He denounced humanity too.

Life doesn’t deserve that one fears for it. Believe me.

November 25, 2013 22 comments

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov 1995 French title: Le pingouin. Translated from the Russian by Nathalie Armagier.

Victor posa sa machine à écrire sur la table de la cuisine et se mit, un mot après l’autre, à composer des portraits vivants de futurs défunts. Victor put his typewriter on the kitchen table and, one word after the other, started to compose lively portraits of future deceased.

book_club_2For November our Book Club had selected Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov. I have read the French translation, which means I’ll have to translate into English the quotes I want to include in this billet. I’ll leave the French translation for you as well. If you can read in French, then at least you’ll read a version by a professional translator. Otherwise, you’ll have to live with my attempts at translation. Now back to the book.

We’re in Kiev in the 1990s and the main character of our novel is the would-be writer Victor. He’s been trying to write a book, to no avail. He needs a job to pay the bills, so when an editor at the Stolitchnaïa, Igor Lvovitch wants to hire him to write obituaries, he accepts. Victor writes “little crosses” about people who are still alive; the newspaper will be prepared in case of their death.

Kurkov_pingouinVictor lives in a two-bedroom flat with his penguin Micha. He adopted him the year before when the zoo was giving animals away because they couldn’t afford to feed them. Victor knows nothing about penguins but the waddling presence of Micha distracts him from his solitude. They complement each other.

Soon after taking on this new job, at which he is very good, several people enter into Victor’s universe. First, he strikes up an acquaintance with a man named Micha. He comes upon Igor’s recommendation and requests a necrology for a dying friend. Victor accepts to write it and Micha becomes an occasional visitor, coming with his daughter Sonia. Then he meets Sergueï, a policeman who accepts to come at Victor’s and feed Micha while Victor is away. Victor and Sergueï quickly become friends, taking Micha the penguin out and spending time together.

Victor slowly realises that since he’s taken on this new job, weird things happen around him. The persons he has written about seem to die suddenly and of unrealistic cause:

Il est tombé du cinquième étage. Il semblerait qu’il ait été occupé à laver les carreaux, mais étrangement, ce n’était pas chez lui. En outre, il faisait nuit. He fell down from the fifth floor. It seems he was cleaning the window, but strangely, it wasn’t his. And, it was at night.

It reminds me of a Corsican death where the guy commits suicide by shooting himself three bullets in the back. Then Micha disappears, leaving Sonia under Victor’s care. Then Igor warns Victor that he should maintain a low profile for a while, which leads him to spend Christmas in Sergueï’s dacha. Micha the man doesn’t come back and Victor hires Sergueï’s niece Nina to babysit Sonia. The three of them start living together. In a short span of time, Victor goes from living like a hermit with a penguin to sharing his life with a child and a woman.

That’s not the most important preoccupation here. With what kind of mob has Victor become involved? What should he do? Close his eyes and look the other way? Stop writing “little crosses”? But can he stop? I was interested by the plot and wanted to know who was behind Victor’s job and what it was all about.

However, there’s more to Death and the Penguin than just that. It was written in 1995, not long after the collapse of the USSR. Through the characters’ everyday life, Kurkov depicts life in Ukraine during those years. Material goals prevail. Everybody wants to survive and that’s the most important. Public services are in bad shape and corruption is everywhere. Here’s Pidpaly, one of Victor’s acquaintances after he has discovered that he has cancer:

– Et le médecin, il en dit quoi ?- Le médecin, il dit que si je lui donne mon appartement, je vivrai encore trois mois… – And what does the doctor say ?– The doctor says that if I give him my apartment, I’ll live three months more…

We’re far from the Hippocratic oath, aren’t we? The environment is violent: the book opens with Victor being hit by stones and the dachas are protected from thieves by antipersonnel land mines. Charming. On a lighter tone, I enjoyed reading about underground malls, parties on the ice to let Micha the penguin have fun, Christmas traditions and dishes.

In Kurkov’s voice I heard typical Russian literature. There’s a strong sense of humour and of the grotesque. The idea of a man living with a penguin that eats frozen fish, takes baths in a bathtub and sleeps on a little blanket is rather funny. The penguin attracts attention and affection. He’s a silent but comforting presence in Victor’s life. Micha is depressed but his sadness seems to reflect Victor’s. Gogol could have invented him.

Victor is a strange character. He’s passive and adapts to the events as they happen. He changes his diet when Sonia starts living with him because she needs to eat properly. He doesn’t particularly like children but never tries to get rid of her. She comes into his life, he adjusts. Nina wants them to live as a family, he adjusts. Igor needs to hide for a while, he helps him. When Pidpaly is in the hospital and dies, he takes care of the ceremony even if he only briefly knew the man. Victor brings his help to people who need it and yet he seems indifferent to everything. There’s a strong feeling of resignation in the novel, something I attach to Russian literature. Perhaps I’m wrong to generalise.

Kurkov’s style is quite lively. I liked his description of the city, the weather and how it impacts Victor’s mood.

Dehors, l’hiver que le gel faisait croustiller suivait son cours. Tout était plutôt calme. Outside, winter that frost made crusty followed its path. All was rather quiet.

It’s a tale laced with black humour or comic stemming from situations. I laughed at this passage:

Victor était assis tout au bout du divan, Sergueï occupait le fauteuil, et le pingouin restait debout ; la nature ne l’avait pas doté de la faculté de s’asseoir. Victor was sitting at the end of the couch, Sergueï was in the armchair and the penguin was standing. Nature hadn’t granted him the faculty to sit down.

In literature, we often see children speaking like little adults and too mature for their assumed age. In Death and the Penguin, I thought that Sonia’s voice was convincing. I could hear a young child speaking when reading her dialogues. She makes observations typical from young children. When spring comes back and the ice starts to melt outside, she says Uncle Vitia! (…) The icicles are weeping! It reminded me of our son who declared very seriously one morning Look Mom, the orange juice is smiling. He was about Sonia’s age at the time.

The combination of the plot, the offhand observations of the Ukrainian society and the picturesque characters makes of Death and the Penguin a funny tale tainted with crime fiction. I had a good time reading it. In our book club, someone couldn’t finish it, she couldn’t care less about Victor’s fate and didn’t accept the assumption that it is perfectly plausible to live with a penguin. (No problem for me, I remind you that I’m totally sold on a story about a man who lives with a python who hugs him, written by the way, by a Frenchman of Russian origin.). Just to say that opinions aren’t unanimous on this one. For another review, please find Guy’s here.

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