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‘Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table,’

August 22, 2015 22 comments

Still Life by Louise Penny. (2005) French title: Nature morte. Translated into Quebec French by Michel Saint-Germain.

In the twenty-five years she’d lived in Three Pines she’d never, ever heard of a crime. The only reason doors were locked was to prevent neighbors from dropping off baskets of zucchini at harvest time.

I bought Penny_Still_LifeStill Life by Louise Penny after reading Caroline’s review here and it’s been on my TBR since 2012. Then Louise Penny was signing books at Quais du Polar this year and it reminded me I needed to get to her book soon and it fit nicely in my #TBR20 project.

Still Life is cozy crime fiction of the good sort, the kind you’d want to take on a long flight to forget you’re squeezed in coach or one you’d save to read it curled up on the sofa by a nice fire on a cold and foggy winter day. It is also the first volume of a series featuring Armand Gamache, Chef de la Sûreté du Quebec.

Now the plot. The sweet old lady Jane Neal is found dead in the bucolic village of Three Pines, located a couple of hours from Montreal. She was killed in the woods by an arrow. It’s hunting time and the first question is: is it a hunting accident or a murder?

Jane was well respected in her village and almost everyone was fond of her. She was a bit eccentric: she loved painting but never wanted anyone to see her art and she also never let anyone past her kitchen in her house. Jane gets killed just after one of her paintings had been chosen for a local art exhibition, Arts Williamsburg but before the list of the selected artists was announced officially. Jane’s work raised controversy and the committee picking artists for the show. Does this event have something to do with her sudden death?

Her death strikes her friend Clara Morrow really hard as Jane was like a surrogate mother to her. Clara is a struggling artist, married to Peter, a painter whose art is rather highly priced but who doesn’t paint fast enough to make a decent living out of it. Clara and Peter were on the committee who approved of the painting for the art show and they were also hosting a diner with their friends the day the choice was made and only two days before Jane’s death. If it is a murder, is the murderer someone from the village?

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is in charge of the investigation and starts digging around, chatting with the villagers, Jane’s friends, settling an office in the old station, sleeping at the local B&B. His approach relies on science and evidences, observation and understanding of human nature. He’s perfectly aware that his investigation will play havoc with the villagers. The questions he asks will unearth secrets, including some that aren’t relevant for the investigation, they will make people look at each other differently. Gamache sticks to his principles, tries to see the best in his team and is committed to coaching rookies. This first volume starts to explore the characters of the police team: Jean Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s second in command, Yvette Nichol, the rookie and Isabelle Lacoste, experienced but not as much as Beauvoir. It’s going to be nice to see how Louise Penny will develop them, especially Nichol and Gamache. Readers who like Thomas Pitt, the policeman in Anne Perry’s books will like Armand Gamache and vice-versa. The two men could be cousins.

Penny_nature_morteBeside the plot and the investigation, I enjoyed Still Life for Penny’s style, the setting in Quebec and her observations on human nature and on her country. Louise Penny is Canadian and anglophone. She writes in English and her books were translated in Quebec French before being available in France. I have the original version, though. At Quais du Polar, she explained that the French publisher Actes Sud kept the Quebec French translation instead of re-working it into French. Hearing that, I almost regretted to have the English version, just to have the pleasure of reading a book set in Quebec, in French from Montreal and not from Paris. In the end, the English version proved to be a delight with all the French words included in the text to give back the Quebec atmosphere. It enforces the sense of place and it works well like in these short examples:

Nichol waved toward the back seat while negotiating Blvd St Denis to the autoroute which would take them over the Champlain Bridge and into the countryside.

Or

Clara and Myrna stood in line at the buffet table, balancing mugs of steaming French Canadian pea soup and plates with warm rolls from the boulangerie.

The vocabulary sometimes gave me a lovely impression of outdated times. Chef de la Sûreté (Chief Inspector) propelled me to the Ancien Régime and police under Louis XV. The French-speaking characters had rather old-fashioned names like Armand, Reine-Marie or Yvette.

I wonder what Louise Penny thinks of the title of the French translation, Nature morte. I guess she discussed it with her translator. Still life is a genre of painting and since painting is in the center of the plot, it makes sense. And in French, when you discuss painting, a still life is a nature morte. However, in English, still life conveys another meaning, if you put aside the reference to painting and it is explained in the book by Myrna, the local bookseller.

I think many people love their problems. Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life.’ Myrna leaned back again in her chair and took a long breath. ‘Life is change. If you aren’t growing and evolving you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most of these people are very immature. They lead “still” lives, waiting.’ ‘Waiting for what?’ ‘Waiting for someone to save them. Expecting someone to save them or at least protect them from the big, bad world. The thing is no one else can save them because the problem is theirs and so is the solution. Only they can get out of it.’

Nature morte (literally “dead nature”) doesn’t convey this meaning at all as this expression is attached to painting and nothing else. So part of the depth of the title is lost in French. Honestly, I don’t know what else the title could have been, though. 

The investigation and the description of Three Pines and its inhabitants are combined with thoughts about the relationship between anglophones and francophones in Quebec. Some anglophones characters say they feel out of place sometimes. I don’t know if it’s true but it intrigued me. I also thought that the following observation…

It was, reflected Gamache, one of the fundamental differences between anglophone and francophone Quebecers; the English believed in individual rights and the French felt they had to protect collective rights. Protect their language and culture.

…seems relevant for France as well. The protection of collective rights is the source of social security and collective pension schemes. Indeed, in France, you don’t pay for your own pension plan, you pay for the people who are retired now and the next generation will pay for you. We also want to protect our language, our way-of-life and our vision of the world.

In other words, Still Life is a solid cozy mystery with more depth than a book by Agatha Christie. It mulls over the impact of a police investigation on a community and lets the reader see glimpses of the society it is set in. Recommended.

Literary escapade: Verona

August 16, 2015 11 comments

I swear I’m not trying to visit all the locations Shakespeare used in his play but after Elsinore, I’ve had the chance to visit Verona. Shakespeare never set a foot in Verona but, as everyone knows, made the city famous with Romeo and Juliet. I’m not going to review Romeo and Juliet, I haven’t even reread it, it’s not my favourite play by Shakespeare. Too much teenage drama.

The city of Verona, like Elsinore with Hamlet, takes advantage of the ultra-famous lovers. Shakespeare has several statues in the city and they puzzled our children because he wears an earring (“Mom, do you really think Shakespeare had an earring?”).

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I checked afterwards, not all of Shakespeare’s alleged portraits show an earring. Anyway.

Somewhere in the old city center, there’s Juliet’s house with the famous balcony. It can’t be hers, of course, but it always gives you a sense of place. There are a lot of tourists under her balcony

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I didn’t see any Juliet impersonation saying O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? from the said balcony. Inside the house, they’ve recreated Juliet’s home, see what her bed is supposed to have been:

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Of course, there are lots of love-related gift shops around the place and two walls of graffiti of “X loves Y”. Seems like the way to a man’s heart is his stomach, even for a modern Juliet:

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Do I need to say what my feminist self thinks of this?

Near the river Adige, there’s via Shakespeare, lungadige Capuleti and Juliet’s supposed grave.

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Marketing and imagination do marvels. It’s like a bookworm version of Disney when you see the Sleeping Beauty’s castle. It’s unauthentic as possible but still fun to do.

The real literary thing about Verona is Dante’s statue.

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The great author was exiled in Verona and mentioned the city in The Divide Comedy. 

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast

August 12, 2015 23 comments

The Last Frontier by Howard Fast 1941. French title: La denière frontière. (Translated by Catherine de Palaminy.)

book_club_2This month our Book Club has selected The Last Frontier by Howard Fast. I’m on holiday, so I have time to read and I’m early to post about it but that’s the kind of book you want to share immediately. So the billet comes now. I have The Last Frontier in French, the translation dates back to 2014 and this title belongs to the Totem collection of publisher Gallmeister. I’ve mentioned them before, they have a gift to bring fantastic American writers to the French public.

The Last Frontier is what we call in French a récit. Howard Fast relates the Northern Cheyenne Exodus and the Fort Robinson Massacre. After the battle of Little Big Horn, the Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf surrendered at Fort Robinson in 1877. They expected to settle in the same reservation as the Sioux, according to the stipulation the Fort Laramie Treaty that they had both signed in 1868. Instead of that, they were sent at the reservation at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, about 1600 km south.

FastIn this Southern Cheyenne reservation that was part of the Indian Territory, they suffered from malaria and hunger. The climate and the environment were so different from their native land that they decided to leave the reservation to go back to the Black Hills and the Powder River county in Montana, where they came from and where they belonged.

They left the Indian Territory in September 1878 and their expedition ended in April 1879. The Cheyenne were led by Dull Knife and Little Wolf. They had no right to leave the reservation and the US army were after them as soon as they started.

Howard Fast recounts their voyage. They managed to escape the army for a rather long time. They then split in two groups, one led by Dull Knife and the other led by Little Wolf. The group led by Dull Knife was killed at Fort Robinson after being imprisoned in inhuman conditions. The group led by Little Worlf reached Montana safely. Meanwhile, after the Fort Robinson massacre, Carl Schurz, Secretary of Interior had decided to let the second group stay in Montana. The Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation will be created few years later.

When Fast’s book is released, we’re in 1941, one of the toughest years of WWII in Europe and it was before Pearl Harbor. The Cheyenne fought for their freedom and this resonated in him and in the public. His book was a success. In the afterword of the book, he explains how he investigated the events. He had read a paragraph about these events in 1939 and wanted to know more. He and his wife went to the Cheyenne reservation and met with old Cheyennes who had taken part to the flight. He also had help from academics in Oklahoma. We are lucky that Howard Fast and his wife started investigating this and collecting the story from the witnesses. In his introduction of the American edition of the book, Howard Fast explains how overwhelmed he and his wife were when they realized what had happened. What they learned there went against all they had been taught about the Plain Indian Wars.

Fast_FrontierAll along the book, Fast talks about the Cheyenne with respect. He pictures that they only wanted to go home. He shows the decisions of the US Army to catch them. At some point, 12000 soldiers were chasing 300 Cheyennes. The picture isn’t pretty.

What strikes me is the deeply rooted belief of the Whites that they are superior because they are white and Christians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs in Oklahoma lacked supplies and couldn’t give the Indians enough food. They had to split the food and, as Quakers, favored the Indians who had become Christians. Our 300 Cheyennes weren’t ready to give up their faith, their culture, their roots. The Bureau of Indian Affairs wanted to change hunters into farmers in Oklahoma. This place isn’t the easiest to farm. How do you convince another people to abandon their culture when it’s so unappealing?

The reasoning of the Whites, the civilians and the military is based on the certitude that the Cheyennes are savages. They are barely humans. We’re in 1878 and it seemed to me we were at the same place as the Spanish during the Valladolid debate in 1550-1551. Three centuries later. “They are so different from us, are they even human?” That’s the question. The interests of the colonizing State is to deny their humanity. Then you can spoliate them, kill them, imprison them. It doesn’t matter, they’re not really human, are they? Of course, not everybody agrees with this line of thinking. You have people who are interested in this other civilization and see them as equals. But they are a minority and it’s not where the government is going.

Treaties signed with the Indians had not been enforced. I knew that. I didn’t know what legal reasoning justified it. I learned some of it here. The Fort Laramie treaty? It had been signed between two sovereign Nations and since the Cheyennes don’t have land anymore, they are no longer a sovereign Nation. So the treaty is conveniently void. Isn’t that easy? You push the Indians out of their land, they’re no longer a sovereign Nation and you can forget what you signed.

I liked that Howard Fast tried to be fair. The soldiers aren’t cruel per se; they are led by narrow minded and stubborn officers. They didn’t like to fight against civilians and several times, officers delayed attacks because they were uncomfortable with the idea of slaughtering people. This was not a regular war and they knew it. They postponed interventions and this delay helped the Cheyennes move further. Drastic decisions are easy to make in Washington DC or in forts when you’re not the one doing the dirty work. Field officers were reluctant to do the dirty job.

The complexity of the Cheyenne language certainly handicapped this tribe. It seems to be a beautiful and musical language but difficult to learn. Fast tried and failed and said that young Cheyennes educated in the English school system couldn’t speak Cheyenne to the elder. The army had trouble communicating with the Cheyennes; translators were scarce and not reliable. Subtle discussions were out of the question.

When you read Fast’s tale of the events, you realize that the Cheyennes only wanted to go north. They didn’t want to start a war; they wanted their freedom back. They were ready to die for it. It was better to die fighting than die of hunger and illness in the oven of the Oklahoma summer. They fought the soldiers to stay alive, not to start an uprising. When you read the Wikipedia articles about the same events, the underlying tone leads you into thinking that the Indians were more aggressive than what Fast describes. I tend to believe Howard Fast because his book is based upon research and because his tone is journalistic. 

I wonder how the wars against Indians and the conquest of the western territories are taught in American schools. How much time is spent on their history? How is it described? 

I bet that Africans and Asians have similar dreadful stories to tell about their French or English colonizers. In France, we learn nothing in school about the colonization of African or Asian territories. Suddenly we have all these colonies, they provide good soldiers during WWI and then in the 1960s, they become independent. We hear a bit more about Algeria and nothing else. It’s a big fat deafening silence. I don’t remember any famous French book showing the colonized side of the events or aiming at fairness.

At least, Howard Fast opened a trail to view these events with different eyes. It’s enlightening and also worth reading for the description of the land and rough life in the Plains.

I have one little complain. I wish Gallmeister had included a map in the book. It would have helped understanding the moves of the Indians and the troops.

Politics, literature, Philip Roth…And me

August 8, 2015 9 comments

“Politics is the great generalizer,” Leo told me, “and literature the great particularizer, and not only are they in a inverse relationship to each other –they are in an antagonistic relationship. To politics, literature is decadent, soft, irrelevant, boring, wrongheaded, dull, something that makes no sense and that really oughtn’t be. Why? Because the particularizing impulse is literature. How can you be an artist and renounce the nuance? But how can you be a politician and allow the nuance? As an artist, the nuance is your task. Your task is not to simplify. Even should you choose to write in the simplest way, à la Hemingway, the task remains to impart the nuance, to elucidate the complication, to imply the contradiction. Not to erase the contradiction, not to deny the contradiction, but to see where, within the contradiction, lies the tormented human being. To allow for the chaos, to let it in. You must let it in. Otherwise you produce propaganda, if not for a political party, a political movement, then stupid propaganda for life itself –for life as it might itself prefer to be publicized. During the first five, six years of the Russian Revolution the revolutionaries cried, ‘Free love, there will be free love!’ But once they were in power, they couldn’t permit it. Because what is free love? Chaos. And they didn’t want chaos,. That isn’t why they made their glorious revolution. They wanted something carefully disciplined, organized, contained, predictable scientifically, if possible. Free love disturbs the organization, their social and political and cultural machine. Art also disturbs the organization. Literature disturbs the organization. Not because it is blatantly for or against, or even subtly for or against. It disturbs the organization because it is not general. The intrinsic nature of the particular is to be particular, and the intrinsic nature of particularity is to fail to conform. Generalizing suffering: there is Communism. Particularizing suffering: there is literature. In that polarity is the antagonism. Keeping the particular alive in a simplifying, generalizing world –that’s where the battle is joined. You do not have to write to legitimize Communism, and you do not have to write to legitimize capitalism. You are out of both. If you are a writer, you are as unallied to the one as you are to the other. Yes, you see differences, and of course you see that this shit is a little better than that shit, or that that shit is a little better than that shit. Maybe much better. But you see the shit. You are not a government clerk. You are not a militant. You are not a believer. You are someone who deals in a very different way with the world and what happens in the world. The militant introduces a faith, a big relief that will change the world and the artist introduces a product that has no place in that world. It’s useless. The artist, the serious writer, introduces into the world something that wasn’t there even at the start. When God made all this stuff in seven days, the birds, the rivers, the human beings, he didn’t have ten minutes for literature. ‘And then there will be literature. Some people will like it, some people will be obsessed by it, want to do it…’ No. No. He did not say that. If you had asked God then, ‘There will be plumbers?’ ‘Yes, there will be. Because they will have houses, they will need plumbers.’ ‘There will be doctors?’ ‘Yes. Because they will get sick, they will need doctors to give them some pills.’ ‘And literature?’ ‘Literature? What are you talking about? What use does it have? Where does it fit in? Please, I am creating a universe, not a university. No literature.’”

Philip Roth, I Married a Communist

And this is why some politicians despise literature, why I’ll never be a member of a political party, a political organization or a union. I’m not an artist, I’m not a writer but I’m on the side of the artist, of the writer. I want to see the particular, I want to see the shit, I want to frolic in the grand uselessness of literature.

Danish disappointment

August 7, 2015 16 comments

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (2011). French title: Au présent. (Translated by Catherine Lise Dubost.)

Helle_Helle_EnglishI wanted to read contemporary Danish fiction. There aren’t many Danish books on the shelves in bookstores and I’d read a review of This Should Be Written in the Present Tense on Jacqui’s blog. I thought “Why not?”. I bought the English translation because I wanted it on e-reader form and the French translation is only available in hard cover.

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is about Dorte who moves in a new home near the train station in Glumso, near Copenhagen. Dorte has enrolled at the university in Copenhagen and she commutes to the city but never goes to class. We are in her head as she recalls scenes from her past and talks about her aunt Dorte, her former lover Per…

I managed to read half of the book before abandoning it. I stopped reading it when started having uncharitable thoughts about the main character. In my mind, I called her Dorte-Torte which isn’t nice. And I had the soon-to-be-abandoned book syndrome: walk around the kindle to avoid picking it up, browsing through the shelves to decide which book would be the next…

Dorte is dull and passive and I have a hard time with passive characters. I didn’t care about Per and the likes. I was bored out of my mind by repetitive meal descriptions:

We had goat’s cheese and baguette with red wine, and she made coffee in a French press and heated up the milk.

And this one:

I was going to have meatloaf, but when I stood in the kitchen with the minced meat and the box of eggs I decided I couldn’t be bothered. I boiled the mince and had it in a pitta bread with a bit of cucumber.

I decided I couldn’t be bothered either. God knows the French are obsessed with food. “How was the food?” must be in the Top Three Questions someone asks you when you come back from holiday. But in contemporary literature, it’s rather toned down except if the book is about a chef.

It reminded me of a song by Vincent Delerm. Two people are watching a play by Shakespeare at the Avignon festival. He sings that there are no costumes, no acting, no moves so they thought “why not no public, after all?” and left. I thought there was no plot, no catching characters and if I was about to read about my kind of mundane everyday life, I’d rather live it than read about it.

Helle Helle is a renowned writer in Denmark, she won prizes and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense was awarded the Prix des Libraires in France. I’m not going to say it’s a bad book but that it didn’t work for me. Obviously some readers better informed than me found it excellent. If you want to read something positive about this novel, here’s Jacqui’s review.

 

Women in Translation Month: French suggestions

August 6, 2015 25 comments

WITMonth15I’ve seen several posts and tweets about Women In Translation Month organised by BibliobioWhile I’m not fond of positive discrimination, any opportunity for foreigners to discover another country’s literature is fine with me. I’m not going to make a conscious effort to read more women foreign writers this month. In France, we have another approach to translated literature, we don’t see it as a topic worth discussing. Marvelous works of literature are not written in French. Most readers only read in French. Translation is the only means to access to these books. Therefore French readers read books in translation. End of story. I’ve never seen anyone arguing that one should only read francophone literature out of wariness for the translator’s work.

That said, I thought I’d give anglophone readers a list of French women writers who have been translated into English and are worth discovering, in my opinion. Here comes the list:

Novels:

  • The Princess de Clèves by Mme de Lafayette.
  • Indiana by George Sand.
  • The Collected Stories by Colette
  • Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
  • Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan
  • The Lover by Marguerite Duras
  • All Men are Mortal by Simone de Beauvoir.
  • Suite française by Irène Némirovsky
  • Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes (*)
  • Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan (*)
  • Three Strong Women by Marie NDiaye (*)
  • Héloïse is Bald by Emilie de Turckheim (*)
  • Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi (*)
  • Sweet Agony by Nancy Huston

Theatre

  • Art by Yasmina Reza

Beach & Public Transports Books

  • Fear and Trembling by Amélie Nothomb
  • Someone I Loved by Anna Gavalda
  • The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles by Katherine Pancol

Crime fiction

  • The Chalk Circle Man: The First Commissaire Adamsberg Mystery by Fred Vargas (*)
  • Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti (*)

I hope it’s helpful. The titles followed by (*) have been reviewed here. If you pick any of these books after reading this post, I’ll be happy to hear your thoughts about it. Leave your thoughts or a link to your review in the comment section.

Happy reading!

Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski

August 2, 2015 18 comments

Fun and Games by Duane Swierczynski 2011. Sadly, it’s not available in French, so it goes into the Translation Tragedy category.

Swiercynski_Fun_GamesFun and Games opens with an amazing high-speed chase in the Hollywood Hills on Decker Canyon Road. It’s steep, full of hairpin turns and dangerous. The actress Lane Madden is driving like a maniac, trying to escape whomever is following her and trying to push her into a car accident. Her moonlight drive is a lot less romantic than Jim Morrison’s song.

At the same moment, Charlie Hardie is on a red-eye from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where he’s expected to housesit the mansion of a famous composer. Hardie used to work for the cops in Philadelphia until a tragedy changed everything. He’s now living a wandering life, going from one house-sitting job to the other, trying to forget and go by. When he arrives on site, the house isn’t empty and Lane is inside, bruised and battered, hiding from Them, who attempted to kill her.

As it happens, Them are The Accident People, a secret society with connections in the right places and specialized in rewriting events or erasing unwanted witnesses from embarrassing scenes. They are discreet, efficient and provoke death that look accidental and fitting with the victim’s background. With Lane Madden, they aimed at a timely OD in her car. Only Lane fought back, using what she learned when she trained for stunts in the action movies she’d been doing.

For Hardie, this is a bad case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He should get away from this house and literally run to the hills. But he encounters the brain of this operation and realizes she knows about his past. And suddenly, things become very personal. Why do they want Lane dead? How did they manage to get info on him so quickly?

I won’t say more about the plot to avoid spoilers. This is a fast-paced pulp novel, one you don’t want to put down and it would make a fantastic movie. The characters are well drawn and their past is revealed slowly through the book. Don’t read the summary on Goodreads, it gives away too much of Hardie’s background. The man is a survivor and his survival instinct is out of the ordinary.

Swierczynski has a punchy style that highlights the twists and turns of the plot. See a sample here:

When life finally stops kicking you in the teeth, you don’t whine and count the gaps. You see the fucking dentist and move on.

There aren’t any breathing time as we follow Hardie from one attack to the other. Swierczynski seems to have an bottomless well of creativity in ways to eliminate people. And it works.

Fun & Games is the first volume of the Hardie trilogy that continues with Hell & Gone and Point & Shoot, reviewed by Guy. You can find his review of Fun and Games here and I recommend it, he’s a lot better than me at writing about pulp fiction.

For French readers who’d be interested in Swierczynski, try The Blonde, it’s excellent.

This is another read from my #TBR20 project. Now I want to read the two other volumes. So, after the #TBR20 is over, I already plan to buy the two other books of the Markaris trilogy and the two other Swierczynskis. Hmm. I’m afraid the #TBR20 gig will be followed by a book buying spree, followed by another #TBR20. When will that stop? :-)

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