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Review: Enigma Variations by André Aciman

My Review:
enigma-variationsGiovanni, Maud, Manfred, Chloe and Heidi.  There are the people whom Paul has loved or lusted after throughout the course of his adult life and each one has left an indelible mark on his character and on his soul.  Aciman is a master at capturing the different stages of a love affair by devoting a chapter to each of Paul’s partners who all contribute varying degrees of love, lust, passion and commitment to the story of his life.

The first two chapters of the book are the most compelling and showcase Aciman’s ability to describe and capture emotions that are oftentimes too private to share.  Paul, the narrator, arrives on a small Italian that was his family’s summer home and reflects back on the last season his family spent there when he was an adolescent.   Paul remembers that as a twelve-year-old boy he experienced his first sexual awakening and because his was physically drawn to another man he is confused and ashamed.  Paul’s mother wanted to have an old desk, a family heirloom restored, so she invited the local cabinetmaker over to their home to examine the desk.  Giovanni, an attractive, strong man with attractive hands and a mellifluous voice immediately drew young, adolescent Paul’s attention:

That morning in our house, because he stood so very close to me, something undefined in his face left me as shaken and flustered as when I was asked once to recite a poem in front of the entire school, teachers, parents, distant relatives, friends of the family, visiting dignitaries, the world.  I couldn’t even look at him.  I needed to look away.  His eyes were too clear.  I didn’t know whether I wanted to touch them or swim in them.

Aciman is a master at describing the innocent and naïve feelings that come with a first crush.  Paul begins showing up at Giovanni’s shop and helps him refurbish his parents’ desk.  The desk has a secret compartment that was not discovered by anyone in the family until Giovanni inspects it.  The hidden box within the desk that remains unknown to the family is a fitting image and parallel for the secret feelings that Paul has for the young and handsome cabinetmaker.  As Paul is visiting the island for the first time in ten years, all of his memories and desires for Giovanni come flooding back to him.  Paul is also there to inspect his family’s home which was burned down by the locals for some mysterious reason.  Aciman provides a compelling plot as the mystery of solving this crime is slowly unraveled throughout the first chapter.

The second chapter is devoted to Manfred, a man Paul meets at the Central Park tennis court in New York.  Paul is now in his late-twenties, has some sort of a career in writing and publishing and is living in New York City with a woman named Maud.  Aciman builds a complex character through Paul to make the point that love, passion and sexuality are never easy or well-defined.  Paul is equally attracted to and sexually stimulated by men and women.  Even though he lives with Maud and has a great physical and emotional relationship with her, he cannot stop thinking about Manfred whom he sees every morning at the tennis court.  It takes Paul two years to work up the courage to speak to Manfred.  When Manfred pays him the slightest attention with a look, a nod or a remark, Paul is elated.  Once again, Aciman is so adept at capturing the various stages of a person who has a romantic crush on someone and can only love from afar.  Paul has a private, inner dialogue with his longed for Manfred:

Every morning I watch you walk to your court, I watch you play, and I watch you leave an hour and a half later.  Always the same, never brooding, just silent.  Occasionally, you’ll say “Excuse me” when I happen to stand in your way, and “Thank you’ when your ball drifts into my court and I hurl it back to you.  With these few words, I find comfort in false hope and hope in false starts.  I’ll coddle anything instead of nothing.  Even thinking that nothing can come of nothing gives me a leg to stand on, something to consider when I wake up in the middle of the night and can see nothing, not the blackout in my life, not the screen, not the cellar, not even hope and false comforts—just the joy of your imagined limb touching mine.  I prefer the illusion of perpetual fasting to the certainty of famine.  I have, I think, what’s called a broken heart.

Anyone who has ever loved someone from afar can identify with the pain and torture of Paul’s words.  Finally after two years of this hidden, inner torment, Paul and Manfred go out for a drink and lay all of their feelings out for one another.  We are led to believe that Paul has finally found the right person for him, that a man like Manfred can satisfy him in a way that could never be by a woman.  But, this is only the half-way point of Paul’s story and it is far from over.

The last three chapters all deal with women that Paul is further drawn to.  Chloe, who Paul has known since college, has an especially profound effect on his emotions.  They keep running into each other at social gatherings about every four years and every time these accidental meetings take place their sexual passion is intense.  But they can never commit to one another so their relationship is nothing but a series of false beginnings that never go anywhere.  In the last three chapters, Paul’s self-doubts and emotional confusion don’t fade away with time or age.  Whenever he finds himself in a committed relationship, he is always looking for or thinking about someone else.  I found his story at this point a bit tedious because even in middle age he has not found what can make him happy.

Always looking, always doubting, never happy, Paul becomes a depressing, cliche of a dissatisfied middle-aged man.  Perhaps this is meant to reflect Paul’s continuing struggle with his sexuality;  Aciman’s language and plot in the first part of the story is much more interesting than the ending of the novel.  But overall, it is still worth the read.  This book has many of the same themes and subjects he explores in his previous novel, Call Me By Your Name.  This story also reminded me of Bae Suah’s exploration of the complexities of human sexuality in her novel A Greater Music.

About the Author:
Andre AcimanAndré Aciman was born in Alexandria, Egypt and is an American memoirist, essayist, novelist, and scholar of seventeenth-century literature. He has also written many essays and reviews on Marcel Proust. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Condé Nast Traveler as well as in many volumes of The Best American Essays. Aciman received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from Harvard University, has taught at Princeton and Bard and is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature at The CUNY Graduate Center. He is currently chair of the Ph. D. Program in Comparative Literature and founder and director of The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center.

Aciman is the author of the Whiting Award-winning memoir Out of Egypt (1995), an account of his childhood as a Jew growing up in post-colonial Egypt. Aciman has published three other books: False Papers: Essays in Exile and Memory (2001), a novel Call Me By Your Name (2007), which was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and won the Lambda Literary Award for Men’s Fiction (2008) and Eight White Nights (2010).

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Review: The Heart of the Leopard Children by Wilfried N’Sondé

leopard-childrenThe Heart of the Leopard Children is Wilfried N’Sondé’s first book to be translated into English.  It was written and published in French and this English edition has been translated by Karen Lindo.  This title is part of the Global African Voices series by the Indian University Press whose mission is to publish “the wealth and richness of literature by African authors and authors of African descent in English translation. The series focuses primarily on translations of new works, but seeks to reissue longstanding classics that are currently out-of-print or have yet to reach English-speaking readers.”

The unnamed narrator in this novella emigrated to Paris from the Congo when he was a small child.  His parents were hoping to escape poverty in Africa, but the deplorable conditions in the housing project where they live with many other immigrants is not much better than their original home.  The narrator is sitting in a jail cell because he has been accused of a violent crime.  In between beatings from the police, he reminisces about his younger days which he spent with his best friend Drissa and his girlfriend Mireille.

My full review appears in the January 2017 issue of World Literature Today.  To read my full review click on the link: http://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2017/january/heart-leopard-children-wilfried-nsonde

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Sacrificed on the Altar of Truth: My Review of American Philosophy—A Love Story by John Kaag

laocoon_and_his_sons_vatican

Laocoon and His Sons, Vatican Museum

In Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid, the poet relates the story of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy in vivid and horrifying detail.  The Trojans are standing on the beach which was recently deserted by the Greeks and debating whether or not to bring the massive wooden horse they find into their city.  Laocoön, a priest of Apollo, warns the Trojans about accepting any gift from the Greeks and utters one of Vergil’s most famous lines:

equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.

Do not put your trust in the horse, Trojans.
Whatever it is, I fear Greeks even when they are bearing gifts.*

After Laocoön warns the Trojans about the dangers of the horse and launches his spear at the monstrous structure, two deadly serpents slither out of the sea and grab not only Laocoön but also his two sons that are standing nearby.  The Trojans assume that Laocoön is being punished by the Gods for defiling the horse.  But the opposite is true: Laocoön is right in his fears about the horse and the gods are trying to silence him with this horrific punishment. The Trojans stand on the beach in terror as they watch Laocoön and his sons being swallowed up by the sea serpents:

Tum vero tremefacta novus per pectora cunctis
insinuat pavor, et scelus expendisse merentem
Laocoonta ferunt, sacrum qui cuspide robur
laeserit et tergo sceleratam intorserit hastam.

Then indeed a new terror made the hearts of all the Trojans
tremble and they say that Laocoon had paid the price for
his deserved crime, Laocoon who struck the sacred wood
with his spear and hurled his wicked weapon against
the horse’s back.

John Kaag, author of the book American Philosophy: A Love Story stumbles upon the library of Ernest Hocking in New Hampshire, a priceless collection of over 10,000 books, many of which are rare first editions.  When Kaag finds Hocking’s library, he is in the midst of a personal crisis as his first marriage is crumbling and has been for many years.  As Kaag takes on the task of attempting to catalog and to save some of Hocking’s most valuable books, he finds a large bronze bust in Hocking’s library that was a replica of the famous Laocoön and His Sons statue from the Vatican Museum.  Kaag reflects on the story of  Laocoön and the tragedy of being punished for attempting to do the right thing:

This is what happens to people who have the bad luck of being painfully honest.  Maybe being less honest and alive was better than being self-righteously dead, I thought.  My recent experiment with honesty had been rather brutal.  I’d harbored secret doubts about my marriage for years, but as I edged toward thirty, it had become harder and harder to remain silent.

Days before his birthday Kaag sold his wedding ring and this resulted in an epic fight during his birthday party which their families and friends witnessed.  Kaag remarks that in the end he didn’t die, but there were many occasions during the dissolution of his marriage that he wished he had died..

Kaag concludes about the Laocoön story: “Being punished for telling a lie made sense, but being sacrificed on the altar of truth seemed cruel.”

To learn more about Kaag’s journey from hell to redemption in his personal life, his discovery and cataloguing of Hocking’s collection, and his reflection on American philosophy read my full review in the December issue of Numero Cinq.

*All translations of Latin in this post are my own. My translation style is very literal which can be viewed by some as awkward and clunky, but that’s how I roll with my Latin.

american-philosophy-a-love-story-book-cover

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Review: Cassandra by Christa Wolf

This title was published in 1983 in the original German and this English version has been translated by Jan van Heurck

My Review:
cassandraCassandra is most famous in Greek mythology for possessing the gift of prophecy but this unique gift came with one problem: no one ever believes her true predictions.  In Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Cassandra says that she agreed to have sex with the God Apollo in exchange for the gift of prophecy, but when she went back on her promise and refused the Sun God’s advances, Apollo made sure that her prophecies would never be believed.  When she predicts the future her friends and family treat her as nothing more than a babbling and a raving mad woman.  I have a distinct memory of first translating the Agamemnon and how difficult Aeschylus’s Greek is to unpack.  But the parts in the narrative in which Cassandra is speaking were a nice break because oftentimes she just rants and raves; the various “oi” and “oimoi” noises she makes are a welcome respite from the complex grammatical structures of Aeschylus’s sentences.

Christa Wolf’s Cassandra is an ambitious novel in that it tries to cover the entire scope of the Trojan epic cycle by telling it through the eyes of this doomed and unlucky Trojan princess.  Priam, Hecuba, Helenus, Achilles, Aeneas, Troilus, Briseis, Calchas, Agamemnon, Menelaus, Polyxena and Paris, are just a few of the characters that make an appearance or are mentioned in Wolf’s narrative.  Cassandra, the narrator of this story,  is the daughter of Priam, King of Troy, and his first and most favored wife, Hecuba.  From a very young age Cassandra wants nothing more than to become a priestess of the God Apollo and possess the gift of prophecy.  But once she is given this gift she is subjected to a plethora of other misfortunes which lead to her tragic death.  Wolf’s narrative is so wide-ranging and covers so many characters and actions from the Trojan saga that it is impossible to mention everything she touches on in one review.  So I am going to write about the aspects of Wolf’s story that were the most striking and memorable for me.

In the original myths and stories involving the origin of the Trojan War, Paris, the prince of Troy, visits King Menelaus of Sparta and with the help of the Goddess Aphrodite, absconds with his wife Helen.  In order to get his wife back, Menelaus asks his warmongering brother, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, to help him get an army together, sack Troy, and find his wife.  Wolf makes her story less a matter of love, pride and recapturing a straying wife and instead makes the inception of the war more of a political issue.  Priam’s sister has been taken by the Greeks and there are three separate, and unsuccessful expeditions to bring her back; on the third and final ship, Paris sets sail with the other men and when he cannot get his aunt back he takes Menelaus’s wife instead.  Paris is portrayed as an arrogant and brash young man who uses the pretext of the expedition to take for himself a woman who is said to be the most beautiful in the world.  Christa’s Paris is much more bold than Homer’s Paris, but in both tales Paris has no forethought or concern for anyone other than himself.

When the Greeks attack Troy, Cassandra has already seen this event coming and predicted that it will destroy her home and her family.  She has a dream when she is a child that Apollo spits in her mouth and this is the sign that she can foretell the future but no one will believe her.  When she has one of her prophetic visions she foams at the mouth, has fits that mimic the symptoms of a seizure and drives everyone away from her because they think she is a babbling lunatic.  Cassandra’s narrative about her childhood, how she acquired her gift of prophesy, the destruction of Troy and its aftermath are all told in a stream-of-conscious narrative.  Wolf’s Cassandra constantly moves around between different time periods and this cleverly reflects the anxious ramblings of her tormented mind.  She oftentimes dwells on her earlier years when she was first given the ability to prophesy and became a priestess of the God Apollo.  She is King Priam’s favorite daughter and her position as favorite as well as her ability to predict the future cause her to have complicated relationships with her siblings, her mother, and other men in her life.

When Troy is sacked, all of the Trojan women who survive are divided up among the Greek Kings and taken back to Greece to become their household and sexual slaves.  Cassandra is taken back to Mycenae by King Agamemnon and her interactions with this narcissistic man cause her to reflect on the other complicated relationships she has had with men throughout her life.   Wolf portrays Cassandra as having a great desire to be a priestess of Apollo and remain a virgin, but even her desire to remain untouched is conflicted.  There is a strange scene that Wolf includes in which all of the young women in Troy are placed within the sanctuary of a temple and one by one they are chosen by Trojan youth for a ritual deflowering.  It is oftentimes the tendency for non-Greek, Eastern cultures to be portrayed as being more sexually open and even promiscuous.  In the Ancient Greek myths Priam is basically described as possessing a harem with multiple wives and fifty children. Even though this is not necessarily emphasized in Homer, Wolf seems to pick up on the sexual differences between the Greeks and the Trojans.  When Cassandra does finally become a priestess, she puts up with the head priest visiting her nightly for sexual trysts and she endures it because she pretends she is sleeping with Aeneas whom she loves very much.

Cassandra views Agamemnon as a self-centered, rash and dangerous man who is also sexually impotent.  In Cassandra’s eyes Achilles is not any better a man than Agamemnon and  she describes Achilles as a murderous, selfish brute who takes what he wants, including Cassandra’s sister Polyxena.  The only male in the story that Cassandra has any positive thoughts for is Aeneas, a Trojan youth who is the only hero to escape from Troy when it is burning.  In the ancient Greek myths Aeneas and Cassandra are cousins but they don’t have any real connections other than Cassandra’s prediction that Aeneas will escape Troy.  I am curious as to why Wolf chose Aeneas at the only male in the Trojan saga with any redeemable characteristics.  The depressed, hopeless, confused, Cassandra in Wolf’s narrative becomes a completely different person when Aeneas is around.  The only time when Cassandra has positive, loving thoughts are when she is around Aeneas:

At the new moon Aeneas came…I saw his face for only a moment as he blew out the light that swam in a pool of oil beside the door.  Our recognition sign was and remained his hand on my cheek, my cheek in his hand.  We said little more to each other than our names; I had never heard a more beautiful love poem.  Aeneas Cassandra.  Cassandra Aeneas.  When my chastity encountered his shyness, our bodies went wild.  I could not have dreamed what my limbs replied to the questions of his lips, or what unknown inclinations his scent would confer on me.  And what a voice my throat had at its command.

One final male in the story that is not portrayed in a positive light is Hector, the prince of Troy and first son and heir of King Priam.  In the Iliad he is, I would argue, the most heroic of the men on either side because he has a sense of honor and courage that no other warrior possesses.  So I was disappointed that Wolf refers to him as “Dim-Cloud” and Cassandra remarks, “A number of my brothers were better suited than he to lead the battle.”  To have veered so far off the mark from the Hector of the Iliad was disappointing to me.

When I teach about the God Apollo and Cassandra and her doomed gift of prophecy, my students always have a hard time with the fact that time and again Cassandra prophesies the truth but not a single person ever believes her.  My interpretation of Cassandra has always been that she represents that person who tells us the very thing we don’t want to hear about ourselves or our actions that we continue to ignore.  Cassandra is the classic case of being mad at and ignoring the person who tells us the truth and is honest but who we will cast aside anyway because the truth is too hard to bear.  Wolf writes a spectacular rendition of  Cassandra and brings to the forefront this allegory of ignoring our better judgement and the better judgement of others and suffering the negative consequences for it.

I could really go on and on about my impressions of Wolf’s writing and her exploration of the Trojan saga through the eyes of Cassandra.  I would love to hear what other readers have thought about this book.  What were the most memorable parts of the book for you?  Had you read any of the original myths before encountering this books?  Why do you think Wolf chose Aeneas as a companion for Cassandra?  What do you think of Wolf’s rendition of Cassandra?

About the Author:
c-wolfAs a citizen of East Germany and a committed socialist, Christa Wolf managed to keep a critical distance from the communist regime. Her best-known novels included “Der geteilte Himmel” (“Divided Heaven,” 1963), addressing the divisions of Germany, and “Kassandra” (“Cassandra,” 1983), which depicted the Trojan War.

She won awards in East Germany and West Germany for her work, including the Thomas Mann Prize in 2010. The jury praised her life’s work for “critically questioning the hopes and errors of her time, and portraying them with deep moral seriousness and narrative power.”

Christa Ihlenfeld was born March 18, 1929, in Landsberg an der Warthe, a part of Germany that is now in Poland. She moved to East Germany in 1945 and joined the Socialist Uni A citizen of East Germany and a committed socialist, Mrs. Wolf managed to keep a critical distance from the communist regime. Her best-known novels included “Der geteilte Himmel” (“Divided Heaven,” 1963), addressing the divisions of Germany, and “Kassandra” (“Cassandra,” 1983), which depicted the Trojan War.

She won awards in East Germany and West Germany for her work, including the Thomas Mann Prize in 2010. The jury praised her life’s work for “critically questioning the hopes and errors of her time, and portraying them with deep moral seriousness and narrative power.”

Christa Ihlenfeld was born March 18, 1929, in Landsberg an der Warthe, a part of Germany that is now in Poland. She moved to East Germany in 1945 and joined the Socialist Unity Party in 1949. She studied German literature in Jena and Leipzig and became a publisher and editor.

In 1951, she married Gerhard Wolf, an essayist. They had two children.

 

 

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Review: The Man Who Snapped His Fingers by Fariba Hachtroudi

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Europa Editions.  The original book was published in French and this English translation is done by Alison Anderson.

My Review:
Layout 1This intense story is told in alternating views of two people who survived the brutality of a fictional totalitarian regime called the Theological Republic.  Although the homeland of these two characters is fictional, it is evident from clues in the text that this country is in the middle east and that both characters are refugees somewhere in Russia.  The female character, Vima, was know in the republic as their most stubborn political prisoner and given the name Bait 455.  Vima is arrested and repeatedly raped and tortured by her captors who are trying to get information about her husband’s political subterfuge.  Vima’s love and devotion for her husband runs so deep that the only words she ever speaks during these torture sessions is a defiant, “No.”  One day, without any warning, a high ranking official interrupts one of these torture sessions by snapping his fingers and Vima is rescued.

The other character in the book is a high ranking Colonel who was in the inner circle of the republic’s Supreme Commander.  The Colonel started out as a foot soldier in the Colonel’s army but because of his bravery and knowledge of arms and technology he quickly rises up in rank until he is one of the most trusted members of the Supreme Commander’s inner circle.  The Colonel’s job is to spy on the staff of the prisons where it is suspected that there are groups of traitors who are letting prisoners escape.  The Colonel’s position brings him into direct contact with Bait 455 and through an interesting twist of circumstances in the book he is the man who snapped his fingers to save Vima.

Vima and the Colonel are both refugees in a new country for five years when their paths cross.  The Colonel has applied for refugee status and the political leaders in his country of asylum keep interrogating him.  Vima is called on to be a translator for the Colonel during these interrogations.  At this point their roles as captor and captive are completely reversed and the Colonel knows that his fate is doomed.  The country of asylum really has no interest in harboring this criminal and the Colonel feels that it is only a matter of time before he is eliminated.  So he asks Vima to write a book which tells his story; the most important part of the story for him is the unconditional love he has for his wife whom he had to leave behind in the republic.

Vima and the Colonel both have emotional personalities that allow them to love deeply and unequivocally.  Vima’s tormentors, no matter how much they tried to break her body and her spirit, would not betray her beloved.  The Colonel gives up his position in the republic and risks his life to escape because his wife demands that he do so.  But in the end Vima and the Colonel are both disappointed because their intense love is not matched by their respective partners.

There is one final interesting literary allusion in the text that, as a classicist, I would be remiss not to mention.  The Colonel enjoys reading literary classics with his lawyer, an eccentric man named Yuri.  Yuri introduces him to The Iliad and The Odyssey and the Colonel becomes fascinated with the Greek hero Achilles.  Achilles, not unlike the Colonel, is a controversial hero who wreaks havoc and destruction despite his heroic status.  Achilles is eventually brought down because of his one week spot, his heel, and the Colonel, too, has a vulnerability which comes in the form of his love for his wife.

This is one of those books that will stay with me and that I will think about for a long time to come.  I made the mistake of reading this before bed and it kept me up thinking for quite a while.  The true hero in the book is Vima who, despite suffering the worst evil that humanity has to offer, is resilient and never stops fighting back.  Vima fights her tormentors with a simple “no,” she fights abandonment from her beloved, and she fights when her past comes crashing back into her life and threatens her sanity.  I think that this will make my list of favorite books of the year.

About the Author:
F HachtroudiFariba Hachtroudi was born in 1951 in Tehran. She comes from a family of scholars and professors. Her paternal grand-father was a religious leader who supported the constitutionalists in 1906, against other religious leaders who advocated for governance by Sharia law and the absolute rule of God as a monarchic authority.

Fariba’s father Mohsen Hachtroudi was a learned scholar, often called the “Ommar Khayyam” of contemporary Iran. As a well known French-educated mathematician, philosopher and poet, Mr Hachtroudi was unquestionably considered to be a moral authority for generations of Iranians. Hachtroudi fought his entire life for the promotion of democracy, social justice (most notably women rights) and secularism. Fariba’s mother, Robab Hachtroudi was a professor of humanities and Persian literature.

Fariba Hachtroudi received her doctorate (PHD) in art and archeology in Paris in 1978.

She lived in Sri Lanka from 1981 to 1983, where for two years she taught at the University of Colombo while performing research on the Teravada Boudhism.

When Fariba returned to France in 1983, she started, as a journalist, to denounce Khomeynism.

In 1985 / 1986, to understand the daily life of her compatriots, Fariba travelled clandestinely to Iran by way of the desert of Baluchistan. L’exilée, Hachtroudi’s first book describes her haunting journey.

10 years later, in 1995, Fariba who was much more pessimistic than others, already predicting change and revival “slowly and from within Iran”, decided again to approach the issue by creating a humanitarian association free of political affiliations. MoHa, the association for the foundation of Mohsen Hachtroudi, focuses it work on education and secularism – conditions essential for the respects of women’s rights and the promotion of democracy. MoHa helped Iranians refugees wherever they were. After her last trip to Iran (2006) Fariba Hachtroudi hopes to be able to register her Foundation in Iran in order to help the youth inside the country as it was the goal of her father.

For more information visit her website: http://www.faribahachtroudi.fr/bio/uk.html

 

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