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What Stays in the Forest by Colin Niel

June 24, 2018 12 comments

What Stays In The Forest by Colin Niel (2013) Original French title: Ce qui reste en forêt. Not available in English.

What Stays In The Forest is the second volume of the crime fiction series written by French author Colin Niel and featuring Capitaine Anato. Here’s my billet about the first book, Les hamacs de carton. This series is set in French Guiana and it’s a great part of its appeal.

When the book opens, the scientist Serge Feuerstein is found drowned near the research station he worked for. It is set in the heart of the Amazonian forest and it’s a very remote location, accessible via helicopters. Scientists have been settled there for a few years and they are now surrounded by illegal gold-washers. Indeed, this part of the Amazonian forest is full of gold and poor people from Brazil come illegally to French Guiana to work in ad-hoc and illegal gold mines. It’s a cat-and-mouse game with the French gendarmerie but they’d rather be caught on the French territory with its milder police methods than in Brazil.

Colin Niel creates an interesting set of characters among the scientists living in close quarters at the station. How was Serge Feuerstein killed? Did he disturb illegal gold-washers who decided to eliminate him? Does his death has anything to do with the strange discovery of a dead albatross in French Guiana, a place not frequented by these birds, and incidentally the ones Feuerstein chose as a topic for his PhD.

The crime investigation is well-crafted and Colin Niel describes life in Cayenne very well. It’s a strange mix of exoticism and familiarity with all the French organization of society (police,…) and the natural setting which is totally foreign for a French from mainland France.

Captain Anato is an interesting character. He’s from the Maroon community in Guiana but was raised in the suburbs of Paris. He has asked to be transferred to French Guiana after his parents die. He’s trying to get his footing at work while getting reacquainted with his family. He needs to understand his personal history. His parents were tight-lipped about their reasons for moving to Paris. He’s slowly meeting with his family and discovering where he comes from. We also learn more about the personal lives of his two colleagues Vacaresse and Girbal.

I enjoyed everything about this book: the setting, the murder investigation, the explanations about illegal gold-miners in Amazonia, the descriptions of Cayenne and Anato’s internal turmoil. What Stays In The Forest was our Book Club choice for April (I know, I’m late again) and we all loved it. We all enjoyed the style, the story, the fascinating discovery of a piece of France we know nothing about. Anato is an enjoyable character, full of nuances and personal hurts.

Call it literary serendipity but the issue of gold mining in the Amazonian forest has recently made the headlines in France. The governement wants to grant authorization to set up a giant gold mine in the heart of the forest, discarding ecological consequences or the ones for the indigenous people living off the forest on the Maroni river. See an article here.

Sorry for foreign readers, this is not available in English. For French readers, it’ll make a wonderful summer read.

There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette

June 4, 2018 10 comments

There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette (2016) Original French title: Il reste la poussière. Not available in English.

La vie n’attend pas qu’on ait envie d’y mettre les mains. Life doesn’t wait for you to be ready to put your hands in it.

In There Will Be Dust by Sandrine Collette, we are on a small farm in Patagonia at the beginning of the 20th century. Rafael is the youngest of four boys and has always been bullied by his brothers. Their father disappeared one day, never came back and the mother runs the farm with an iron fist.

Her sons are working slaves not better treated than mules and horses. She knows her older sons mistreat their little brother but she doesn’t care. They’re like a pack of dogs, she feeds them, lets them live under her roof but lets the pack find their own leader. She doesn’t give them any affection and Rafael finds solace in his horse and his dog.

Their life is tough, their farm is isolated and only the oldest sons, the twins Joaquin and Mauro are allowed to go to the nearest town with their Ma. The third son, Steban, doesn’t speak and tries to remain neutral between the twins and Rafael.

It’s a hard book to sum up because a lot of it is spend in everyday life and peering into the brothers’ minds. I felt closer to Rafael but also sorry for the others, to live in such dreadful conditions with such a hard mother. Their world is changing fast, there’s less and less room for small farms and they always struggle with money. One event will change their life but I can’t tell more without spoilers.

There Will Be Dust is a very atmospheric novel. It has an incredible sense of place. Sandrine Collette has a style that talks to all your senses. You can imagine the wind, the sun, the rush of riding a horse, the smell of the country. Her descriptions of sheep farming and sheep shearing ring true. She writes about the noise, the smell, the behavior of the sheep.

She takes you to this hard world, into this desperate family of hard working farmers. There’s a lot of violence in their life and Rafael seems to be their only hope for a different vision of life. But how to escape the yoke their mother put on their necks? How will they have a chance to life in a different light and let warmth seep into their interactions instead of the coldness ingrained by their heartless mother?

Their mother is like a dark spider, controlling everything and everyone. She’s a witch with economical and emotional power that she uses freely. Rafael’s natural temper is different and he’s incredibly resilient. His brothers and mother bully him and it should make him change. But he remains softhearted and hopeful and trusting in human nature. He’s their gift, his brothers’ chance at breaking their mother’s spell on them.

It’s an extremely powerful read. It’s a bleak family story in an unforgiving environment. In a way, it belongs to the same family as The Hands by Stephen Orr. Translation Tragedy

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre

May 6, 2018 8 comments

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre. (2017) French literature, not available in English. (Yet)

La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre will probably end up on my 2018 best of. Meet Patience Portefeux, 53, a widow with two grown-up daughters, with a boyfriend in the police force, and a mother in a nursing home. She’s an underpaid translator from the Arab for the French department of Justice.

As a translator and interpret, Patience spends hours and hours translating and transcribing conversations between drug dealers and other criminals. She also spends hours at the Law Courts, assisting during hearings and questionings. She struggles financially: her daughters are in university, the nursing home costs an arm and a leg, her job pays indemnities instead of wages, which means no retirement money.

So, one day, she seizes an opportunity and crosses the red line and uses what she hears during her job to hijack a huge quantity of marijuana. She becomes La Daronne, the boss of a small dealing network. (In French, daronne is a slang word to say Ma.)

I was waiting for the paperback edition to read La Daronne, a book that won a prize at Quais du Polar last year. I started to read it while I was standing in line at this year’s festival. I can’t tell you how long I waited, I was too engrossed in the story to complain or get impatient. I was waiting for Hannelore Cayre to arrive and sign her books. We chatted a little bit, she was stunned by the line of readers waiting for her. But after reading La Daronne, I’m not surprised that readers wanted to meet her.

Like I said, I was caught in her book from the first pages. Everything drew me in: Patience’s sharp tone, her unusual background, the other characters around her, the original story and the plausibility of it. Contrary to Arctic Chill, this plot doesn’t sound like déjà vu.

Patience sounds real. She has the problems of her age: she’s sandwiched between university costs and nursing home costs, between her daughters and taking care of her ageing mother. The descriptions of the nursing home are vivid, spot on, crude but without pathos. I loved Patience’s irreverence. Political politeness is not her middle name and I loved it. See an example:

J’ai mis une bonne semaine à la repérer [une aide-soignante] vu que dans mouroirs, c’est comme dans les hôpitaux ou les crèches : il n’y a pratiquement que des Noires et des Arabes qui y travaillent. Racistes de tout bord, sachez que la première et la dernière personne qui vous nourrira à la cuillère et qui lavera vos parties intimes est une femme que vous méprisez ! It took me a week to spot her [a nursing auxiliary] because in old people’s houses, it’s like in hospitals and creches: almost all the employees working there are Blacks or Arabs. Racists of all sides, you’d better know that the first and the last person who will feed you with a spoon and wash your private parts is a woman you despise!

If you want to imagine the tone of this book, its dark humor, its bluntness and its exploration of French society’s dirty corners, think of Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes.

La Daronne is a fast-paced trip into Patience’s life but also a journey into the quotidian of small criminality seen from all sides: the marijuana drug dealers’ ecosystem, the policemen’s never-ending work to catch them and the judicial system to judge them.

Hannelore Cayre is a criminal lawyer. She knows perfectly the ins and outs of the French judicial system. What she writes about the translators’ status is true. And so shocking. Imagine that the Department of Justice, the one in charge to enforce the laws of this country cannot afford to pay social charges on the translators’ work and found a trick to avoid paying them. How is that even possible? Especially when you know that private companies have to check every six months that the suppliers with which they do more than 5000 euros of business per year have paid their social security charges. Imagine the paperwork. And the same politicians who impose these useless checks to the private sector turn a blind eye on the Department of Justice employing only freelances to avoid social costs because of budget issues? Truly, I’m ashamed of the way this country treats its judicial system and of how little money we put in this crucial pillar of our democracy.

But back to Patience. Knowing all this, can we really judge her for crossing moral lines? Hannelore Cayre puts an unflattering light on this corner of our world. It’s eye opening, refreshing, new and engaging. This is the real France, not the postcard one.

It’s a Translation Tragedy book, at least for the moment. I saw that her previous books have been translated into German, this one might make it too.

A last quote, just for the pleasure of it.

Dehors, c’était l’automne. Il pleuvait tous les jours comme sur les planètes inhospitalières des films de SF, alors qu’à la télé les infos diffusaient des reportages pour apprendre aux gens à faire des garrots en cas de membre arraché par une bombe. Outside it was autumn. It rained every day like in inhospitable planets in SF movies. On TV, the news flash broadcasted reportages about how to do a tourniquet in case someone lost a member during a bombing.

Welcome to France after the Islamic terrorist attacks…

Quais du Polar 2018 : Fascinating conference about republishing old crime fiction books.

April 9, 2018 9 comments

At Quais du Polar I attended a fascinated conference among publishers about republishing old crime fiction books. The participants were Oliver Gallmeister, from the eponym publishing house, Jeanne Guyon, in charge of Rivages Noir, Jean-François Merle for the publisher Omnibus and Jérôme Leroy, writer, reviewer and in charge of the collection La Petite Vermillon at Gallimard.

The journalist started the discussion by asking about each publisher’s view on reeditions. All said that it was part of the strategy of their publishing house as a way ensure the transmission of a literary heritage. Rivages Noir started with a new edition of Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. For Omnibus born 30 years ago, it was the origin of their existence as they started with the project to publish an omnibus collection of Simenon’s work. You know how prolific he was and it ended up with 27 volumes of 1000 pages each. A colossal work of researching all the books, getting them and arranging them in consistent volumes. Gallmeister has started to republish Ross McDonald, mostly because Oliver Gallmeister wants to share this writer with new readers. When he launched his own publishing house in 2006, he had in mind to release half of new books, half of reeditions. The first reedition was The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. (French title: Le gang de la clé à molette). He was inspired by François Guérif, the creator of Rivages Noir.

Reeditions are a way to help a new publisher to create a catalogue and start their activity. At the same time, they quickly become a tricky economic equation. Indeed, there isn’t as much press coverage for a reedition as for a new book. And there are less prescriptions from the libraires. Why is that? Well, for these well-read and sometimes older readers, these books are old news. They’ve read them before and don’t see why they should write about them or recommend them to clients. Gallmeister has republished seven books by Ross McDonald and it hasn’t been profitable since book three. He said he will keep on republishing them anyway, as it is his duty as a publisher to keep this literary heritage alive. Jeanne Guyon said they had the same problem at Rivages Noir where they endeavor to reedit every book by Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard.

The root of the economic equation is: Is there a public today for this book? They never know if a reedition will be a success. For example, they republished We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. (French title: Nous avons toujours vécu au château), and it was a huge success. Gallmeister republished Margaret Millar and it was a failure, total silence in the press. On the contrary, when books by Chesterton were republished, glowing articles appeared in Le Figaro and Le Monde and the book was launched. The publisher’s thorough work is a not a sure recipe for success in bookstores. There’s a good dose of serendipity. The corporate executive in me understands the economic angst coming out of this serendipity and the need to ensure a return on investment for their good work and the aim to earn money and not endanger their company. The passionate reader in me is happy that selling books is still something different from selling peas and that the whims of the reader remains an unpredictable variable in the equation.

With this economic problem comes another tricky question: should they be completist and republish every single book by a writer or leave behind the less worthy ones? Westlake’s books were of unequal quality; is it worth it to republish the bad ones?

The question of the publisher’s duty in the transmission of book heritage was a crucial one. Gallmeister recoiled a bit at this idea, probably because it smelled a bit too much about duty and mothballs and not enough of passion for books. Jérôme Leroy said he was in a very comfortable position: as the director of a small collection of four books per year at Gallimard’s, his only guide was his urge to share with other readers books by writers that have been formative to him and kindled his love for reading. He loves to republish long forgotten books like La princesse de Crève by Kââ or La langue chienne by Hervé Prudon or oddities in a writer’s career like Drôle de salade by Cécil St Laurent, a penname of the very conservative Jacques Laurent.

The question of republishing one book in a writer’s work or all of their books came back because it’s a crucial question for the publisher. Gallmeister said that no matter what, he will publish the whole work of Ross McDonald. For other writers, he will leave some lesser works behind. He thinks it’s also part of the publisher’s duty to let some writers fall into oblivion. Do former Nobel Prizes like Anatole France deserve republishing? He’s not so sure. (Me neither, btw. Same for Voltaire. Most of his plays are OOP and for a good reason, from what I’ve heard)

I guess that all these parameters are valid for all countries and all literary genres. There’s a specificity to crime fiction and Noir in France though. Books by Thompson, Chandler, McDonald, Westlake and others were first published in collections called Série Noire or Fleuve Noir. They were named romans de gare, books to be bought in railway station by travelers. They used to sell their collection through subscriptions, publish ten to twelve books a month. Books had to be 250 pages long, not more. It was considered as popular literature aimed at a popular readership. They thought about their readers before thinking about the writers. And they had –in my view—quite a low opinion of their readers. They assumed that these readers weren’t able to read long books or that they could enjoy digressions and detours in their crime novels. There’s a lot of contempt from the literary elites on their working-class readers. White collars just assumed that their blue-collar readers were idiots.

So, they took liberties with the original and tampered with the translations. The publishers kept a team of writers/translators who worked according to precise specifications. There wasn’t much time for proof reading. Passages that didn’t contribute to move the action forward were cut, accuracy wasn’t a golden rule for the translator who adapted the text to the reader’s everyday life references. These butchery cuts sometimes erased the singularity of the writers and could reprensent from 10% to 30% of the original. Pop 1280 became 1275 âmes in its first edition probably because it sounded better than 1280 âmes. In the end, 1280 âmes is a book by Jean-Bernard Pouy where he investigates the disappearance of these five souls.

A same writer had a lot of different translators which resulted in inconsistencies in the translations. Two characters would say vous to each other in one volume and tu in others. What’s their relationship? How do they address to each other? The choice must be consistent throughout the translations and it wasn’t. It’s the case for 87th Precinct by Ed McBain published by Omnibus. The foreign authors had no idea of the poor quality of the French translations.

It was another era, a time where French readers knew less about America and translators tried to translate the books into French but also into French references to help the reader. This is behind us with globalization.

This doesn’t correspond to our vision of what a translation should be. Now translation contracts specify that the translation must be faithful, complete and accurate. Publishers are also more respectful of authors and now readers buy a book by a certain writer and not the latest Série Noire or Fleuve Noir. That’s a major difference too.

However, this past isn’t without consequences. Any reedition implies a retranslation of the book, adding to the cost of the new edition. This is also why the participants to this conference consider the republishing of older crime fiction books as a literary duty, a way to preserve and foster a literary heritage. It allows new readers to discover the books that were seminal to their contemporary favorite writers. This trend also means that crime fiction is now seen as a noble and literary genre. Excellent news, if I may say so.

Quais du Polar 2018

April 8, 2018 10 comments

For newcomers to Book Around the Corner, Quais du Polar is a crime fiction festival set in Lyon. Writers come and meet with readers, participate to panels about crime fiction and celebrate this literary genre with amateurs. The whole city organize meets, games, conferences, films, exhibits around crime fiction for three days. A giant bookshop made of the aggregation of the stands of independent bookstores from Lyon is set up in the great hall of the Chamber of Commerce.

It used to be the Lyon Stock Exchange and during a weekend, it’s a crowded place full of crime fiction lovers who interact with writers, talk with enthusiast libraires (sorry, I can’t call a libraire a book seller, especially not the ones present at Quais du Polar) and read in the alleys between signing and conferences. Here’s the picture of this unique bookstore, on Saturday morning, before the big crowds arrived.

Of course, it ends up with a book haul. That’s inevitable, here’s what I bought:

Craig Johnson was in Lyon again and he will be in other cities in France. It seems that when he’s not in Wyoming, he’s in France! I got another book by him, the edition by Gallmeister because they’re so much better than the paperback version by Le Point.

I started to read La Daronne by Hannelore Cayre while I was waiting for her at her stand and I finished it the day after in a queue before a conference. I was totally captivated and the world could have collapsed around me and I wouldn’t have noticed. I’ll write a billet about it. I’d heard it was excellent and I wasn’t disappointed.

Another French writer: Pascal Dessaint. I’ve never read him and he’s not available in English. He’s published by Rivages Noir which is a good sign for me. He recommended to start with Loin des humains. He said it encapsulates the elements that are the trademark of his work. Who am I to contradict the author? I trust his judgement and will discover his work with this one.

I’d heard about My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent through the newsletter of his French publisher, Gallmeister. If they decided to publish it, then it’s good American literature. I bought it in English even if I’m sure that the translation is excellent.

This year, the festival was dedicated to Italian crime fiction and I bought Piste noire (Black Run) by Antonio Manzini after hearing him at a panel about Italy.

I was tempted by many other books and was a bit disappointed not to find any Australian crime fiction gem. I asked to several libraires but Oz crime fiction isn’t widely spread here.

I only went to three panels, one about Italy and its regions, one about republishing books and one among writers who have a teenager as central character in their latest book. I’ll write more about the conferences. This year I could only attend the festival for two days but I had a great time with friends, I loved wandering in the bookstore, being among so many avid readers.

As always, writers seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the visitors. This 14th edition of the festival was a success, a great way to celebrate crime fiction as a noble literary genre.

Tom from Les Expectations de Hurlevent (That’s what his blog Wuthering Expectations has become during his stay in France) wrote three billets about the festival, you can find them here, here and here.

The Dark Angel by Dominique Sylvain

March 10, 2018 15 comments

The Dark Angel by Dominique Sylvain (2004) Original French title: Passage du désir.

Dominique Sylvain was signing books at Quais du Polar and when I picked Passage du désir and chatted briefly with her, I discovered that she was born in the same area as me and that her book opened on a quote by Romain Gary from Life Before Us. It seemed that Passage du désir and me were meant for each other.

It is actually the first investigation of her series featuring Lola Jost and Ingrid Diesel. This duo is made of a former commissaire (Lola Jost) and an American masseuse (Ingrid Diesel). They are neighbors and when a murder is committed nearby, they start investigating together and giving information to Lola’s ex-colleagues.

Dominique Sylvain wrote a compelling page-turner where two unusual characters join their forces to ensure that the real culprit is discovered and that their friend Maxime Duchamp is not wrongly accused of the murder. The characters are well-drawn, they are damaged enough to be interesting but not too much to be implausible. The author embarks the reader on a ride in Paris, in the life of a Parisian neighborhood, in the night life of the capital and its shady corners. Ingrid has a crush on Maxime and wants to help him; Lola still has to deal with her early retirement from the police force. And her former team misses her. The side stories were good companions to the murder investigation. I couldn’t put it down. It was fun, entertaining as hell and I really enjoyed the time I spent with Lola and Ingrid.

I will read other books by her. They are perfect for travels, not too complicated to read but very gripping and written in a sassy and quirky language. Good style, good plot, promising characters : everything is aligned for an excellent reading time. The French cover of the book is a good representation of the atmosphere while the English covers is a faithful representation of the two main characters. Guess who’s Ingrid and who’s Lola.

Since I’ve read the book, I know where the English title comes from. It’s unfortunate that the French title wasn’t translated literally. It should be Desire Road, not The Dark Angel. The French title relates to the succession of events that will lead to crime but it also refers to desire as a force that moves the characters forward, criminals, victims and investigators. The English title focuses on the murderer. It’s a different approach but I mostly think that The Dark Angel is a darker title that leaves behind all the sass of the characters. It’s more straightforward.

This one is highly recomended to crime fiction lovers. Dominique Sylvain is on my mental list of writers to turn to when I look for something good and entertaining.

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran

January 6, 2018 6 comments

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran (2011). French title: La cité des morts. Translated by Claire Breton.

The City of the Dead by Sara Gran is the first instalment of her crime fiction series featuring her female PI heroin, Claire DeWitt. When the book opens, we’re in 2007, Claire is in California and Leon calls her to ask to come to New Orleans and investigate the disappearance of his uncle, Vic Willing. He vanished during the flood due to the floodwall failure around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit the region. Everybody assumes that Vic drowned and that his corpse never reappeared. His nephew is not at ease with this version and wants to dig further.

Claire accepts the job and reluctantly comes back to a city she left ten years before. She used to live in New Orleans and her mentor Constance was training her to become a PI. Claire grew up in a decrepit townhouse in Brooklyn. She fell into mystery solving at a young age when she and her girlfriends Tracy and Kelly found a book called Détection by Jacques Silette. It’s an essay written by a French PI who discusses investigating and solving mysteries. This book is closer to a sort of Tao Te Ching of crime fiction than to a basic Crime Solving 101. It became Claire’s bible. And Constance had been tutored by Jacques Silette himself. That’s Claire’s professional foundations.

Claire accepts the case, flies back to New Orleans to find out what happened to Vic Willing and to face her personal demons. Coming back to New Orleans, a city she left after Constance’s violent death, is painful to Claire. And she comes back to a city traumatized and destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and its consequences.

Her investigation will lead her in various areas of the city. She will take us to neighborhoods literally destroyed and full of buildings in ruins. She will show us the incredible level of criminality of New Orleans, its poverty but also its strong culture and traditions. Claire takes us to what looks like a Third World country. Sara Gran used to live in New Orleans. She depicts a city with no decent public services and gangrened by corruption. Institutions don’t work together, the police and the judicial system can’t coordinate their efforts and a lot of crimes remain unpunished. Killings are common occurrences. Arm and drug trafficking are almost in the open. Eighteen months after Katrina’s passage, the reconstruction of the city has barely started in some areas and people are in as bad a shape as the buildings in ruin. Some lost everything and lived through terrible times. We all saw on TV how poorly the US government handled this major catastrophe at the time. Hurricane Katrina revealed to the world a rich country that had tons of money for war but none to rescue its poorest citizen.

For this reader, this aspect of The City of the Dead was the most interesting part of the book. I was not really interested in the outcome of the investigation. And in the end, I was disappointed by the motive behind Vic Willing’s murder. I thought it was a banal device for a crime fiction writer.

And then, there’s the whole esoteric/mystic side of Claire DeWitt. I was bored by the unintelligible quotes from the fictional Détection. Silette’s book sounds like ominous prophecies by Nostradamus written by a fortune cookie author mated with French intellectualism of the 1970s. At least that how it looked to me and it totally put me off. See what I mean:

“Happiness is the temporary result of denying the knowledge one already has,” Silette wrote. “Once one knows what one knows—once one knows the solution to his mysteries—happiness is besides the point. But in rare cases, something much better can bloom.”

I really don’t see the attraction or the need for this pseudo-intellectual thread. I’d be very happy to read other readers’ thoughts about this.

Last but not least, the style. *Sigh* Clearly, Chandler ruined me. I’m way too picky and too demanding when it comes to crime fiction. I thought that Gran’s style was good but not exceptional. I read the French translation and while it’s well done for today’s French readers, I wonder if it will keep. The translator chose to use very contemporary slang to translate the voices of New Orleans’s criminals and outcast. Expressions like truc de ouf or verbs like kiffer may sound outdated in a decade. The translation will sound as weird as the one of Rage in Harlem by Chester Himes. Slang is difficult to translate and it’s like fashion, its trends don’t last.

In the end, I didn’t like The City of the Dead very much, mostly because of the weird Silette cult. No second book with Claire DeWitt is in my future.

Something must be wrong with me because this book was in the following literary prizes: Macavity Award for Best Mystery Novel (2012), Hammett Prize Nominee (2011), Shamus Award Nominee for Best First PI Novel (2012), Deutscher Krimi Preis for 1. Platz International (2013), Meilleur polar des lecteurs de Points (2016)

If you’ve read it, please let me know what you thought about it.

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