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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

Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson

May 21, 2018 11 comments

Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson (2007) French title: L’indien blanc, translated by Sophie Aslanides.

Kindness Goes Unpunished is the third volume of the Longmire crime fiction series by Craig Johnson. (See my billets about The Cold Dish and Death Without Company  Longmire is the sheriff of the fictional Absaroka country in Wyoming. When the book opens Longmire is driving to Philadelphia to accompany his best friend Henry Standing Bear (The Bear) who is hosting an exhibition about Indian Art at the city museum. Longmire’s daughter Cady works at a law firm in Philly and she wants her father to meet with her boyfriend, something Longmire dreads a little bit. Philadelphia is also the hometown of Vic Moretti, Longmire’s second in command in the sheriff’s office in Wyoming. Her father and brothers work for the PPD. With three good reasons to visit Philadelphia, Longmire leaves his beloved Absaroka county for a trip to the city.

When Longmire and The Bear arrive in Philadelphia, Cady isn’t there to welcome them. She has been assaulted and is in a coma. Worried sick about her, Longmire starts digging to understand what happened to his only child. After all, he must occupy the time between painful visits to the hospital. This terrible event turns into an opportunity to meet Vic’s family, her mother as a support system and her father and brothers as policemen.

When Cady’s boyfriend Devon is murdered a few days after she was assaulted, it is clear that the attack against her wasn’t random and that Devon was involved in shady businesses. This is how our country sheriff gets sucked into a dangerous investigation about drug trafficking while getting to know Vic’s family.

What can I say? This series is good. The plot held my attention. The criminal investigation was interesting. With all the walks and rides in Philadelphia, it makes you want to visit the city and see the places for yourself. The characters are flowed and likeable. Their interactions are subtle. Craig Johnson explores their feelings with a light painter’s touch, drawing their inner thoughts and struggles, slowly building up relationships, the way they do in real life with daily small interactions.

The change of setting was a good idea, a way to build a bridge between Wyoming and Philadelphia, where Vic’s and Longmire’s families live. The personal lives of the characters move forward but without too many details, which still makes it possible to read this book without reading the previous ones. I like that there’s always something about Native Americans in his books. Here, far from Wyoming, they are present through The Bear’s exhibition, Cady’s work as a lawyer and a character from the criminal plot.

Craig Johnson’s writing is warm like Louise Penny’s, if you’ve ever read the Armand Gamache series. Both managed to create a set of characters the reader is happy to hear about and see how they are doing since the previous book. I’m slowly reading this series and I have three unread ones on the shelf, a comforting sight for future comfort reads.

Arctic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason

May 6, 2018 6 comments

Artic Chill by Arnaldur Indridason (2005) French title: Hiver arctique. Translated from the Icelandic by Eric Boury.

When Arctic Chill opens, Inspector Erlendur is on a crime scene. Elias, a ten years old boy has been murdered. He was born in Iceland from an Icelandic father and a Thai mother. Could it be a racist crime? Erlendur and his team are on the murderer’s trail and will make lots of detours before finding the culprit.

What can I say? I’ve heard a lot praise for Indridason and was utterly disappointed. I thought that the plot was trite, the investigation was dragging along, the ending was banal and unsatisfactory. Erlendur and his colleagues Elinborg and Sigudur Oli aren’t that fascinating. It took 404 pages to reach the conclusion in a tepid style. I didn’t even have the satisfaction to learn about Iceland. It didn’t help that the characters’ Icelandic names with their “dur” and “borg” endings evoked pictures of Vikings with swords, helmets and sheep skin clothing rather than 21st century human beings but that’s on me.

Paper thin plot + No real literary creativity + Rather boring book = short billet.

Why bother to write something then?

Because of my only rule : one book, one billet. I’m often behind with the writing and I feel that if I let myself not write about one book, other deserving ones might know the same fate. I need to respect this rule.

And also because I want to know: is this a bad one in the Erlendur series or are all the books like this? Please let me know what you think of Indridason if you’ve already read something by him.

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave

April 10, 2018 18 comments

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave (2009) French title: Mort de Bunno Munro.

‘Listen, you loopy old cunt. My wife just hung herself from the security grille in my own bloody bedroom. My son is upstairs and I haven’t the faintest fucking idea what to do with him. My old man is about to kick the bucket. I live in a house I’m too spooked to go back to. I’m seeing fucking ghosts everywhere I look. Some mad fucking carpet-muncher broke my nose yesterday and I have a hangover you would no fucking believe. Now, are you gonna give me the key to room seventeen or do I have to climb over this counter and knock your fucking dentures down your throat?’

No need to sum up the events that brought Bunny Munro to his last rope, they’re all listed in this quote.

When the book opens, we meet Bunny Munro, salesman who visits his prospects at home and sells them beauty products. The first chapters get us acquainted with Bunny, a man obsessed with sex. He’s an addicted womanizer and the ladies seem to fall for his charms. Still, we’re a bit struck by his looks and wonder how he’s such a ladies’ man.

Bunny opens the front door. He has removed his jacket and now wears a cornflower blue shirt with a design that looks like polka dots but is actually, on more careful inspection, antique Roman coins that have, if you get right up close, tiny and varied vignettes of copulating couples printed on them.

Right. See what I mean about the sex-obsessed mind? We soon understand that he’s a very unreliable narrator. The book has three parties, aptly entitled Cocksman (where Bunny shows us the extent of his uncontrollable sex-drive), Salesman (He’s on a tour to see clients with his son in tow after his wife’s death) and Deadman (cf the title of the book).

In Part One, the reader is amused by Bunny’s antics. In Part Two, the reader starts feeling very sorry for his son, Bunny Junior, understands the reasons of his wife’s suicide and get more and more alarmed by Bunny’s character. In Part Three, the reader is just plainly horrified.

Despite Cave’s fantastic sense of humor, I was ill-at-ease and my uneasiness grew chapter after chapter. The horror of this tale about this sexual predator is partly hidden by the comic thread around the rabbit theme, which is extremely well-done. Bunny loves his name and loves playing with his name and identifies his sex addiction with something embedded in his name. Bunny plays the rabbit card any time: ‘Oh baby, I am the Duracell Bunny!’ and he does a fair imitation of the pink, battery powered, drumming rabbit, up and down the hall’. And now that I’m typing this quote, I see a dildo instead of the Duracell Bunny.

Lots of details in the book or in the way it’s written are linked to the rabbit theme. The rabbit is the symbol of the magazine Playboy. Of course, the expression going at it like rabbits fits him perfectly. The discussions between Bunny and his boss seems to come out of a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Even Bunny’s son fits in the theme. First, he’s named Bunny Junior. Then he has a chronic eye infection that gives him red rabbit eyes. And when I read “The boy responds with a tilt of the chin but his feet start flip-flopping furiously”, I saw the rabbit Thumper from the Disney movies.

All these ridiculous allusions to rabbits, the ludicrous clothes and ties, the way Bunny goes from one apartment to the other, always hitting on isolated and lonely women make him look like a pitiful loser. You’d almost take pity on him but Nick Cave makes sure that you gradually realize that you are in company of a dangerous sex predator. Bunny’s head is deranged, here he is at McDonald’s:

Bunny sits in McDonald’s with a defibrillated hard-on due to the fact that underneath the cashier’s red and yellow uniform, she hardly has any clothes on.

He’s a sicko, plain and simple. He might have a funny rabbit fetish, he’s still unhealthy and a danger to society. This sums up my ambivalence towards the book. I admired Cave’s craft: the style is extremely funny, he takes his character through a last crazy and desperate run at life, a Thelma & Louise trip in Brighton, UK. But the character of Bunny Munro himself made me terribly ill-at-ease with his incompetence as a father, his sick relationships with women that cover the whole scope of sexual misconducts, sexual harassment up to rape. And through all this, he never thought he was doing anything wrong. A frightening journey in the head of a sexual predator who deep down knows his behavior is wrong but never acknowledges it. Chilling.

Many thanks to Guy for sending this book over the Atlantic. His review is here. There’s another PG13 review on Lisa’s blog here.

The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé – 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King

April 4, 2018 10 comments

The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé (2013) Original French title: La Rose dans le bus jaune. Not available in English.

In March, Télérama published an article about Memphis, fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King. It reminded me that I still had The Rose in the Yellow Bus by Eugène Ebodé on the shelf. Ebodé is a French-Cameroonian writer. He was born in 1962 in Douala, Cameroon and emigrated in France in 1982. The Rose in the Yellow Bus is a novel where Rosa Parks narrates her life, beginning with the boycott of the public buses in Montgomery, Alabama in December 1955. As we all know, segregation was the rule then, thanks to the Jim Crow laws; Rosa Parks refused to get up and give her seat to a white man in a public bus. She was arrested by the police. She was already an active militant for the civil rights with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). They decided to use her example to go to court against the Jim Crow Laws and started the Montgomery Bus Boycott , a movement that was pivotal in the Civil Rights movement.

As a child, I had a subscription to a magazine called Astrapi, published by the Christian oriented publisher Bayard Presse. (It still exists) Astrapi used to publish the life of famous people in comic strips, from Sister Emmanuelle to Marilyn Monroe. I remember reading about Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I was in primary school and I remember vividly this comic strips: I was impressed by Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and the participants to the boycott and I was horrified by the concept of segregation. No wonder Ebodé’s book caught my eye when I saw it in a bookshop.

But back to the novel. I’d say it’s good but flawed. It was a difficult mission from the start because it deals with history. Ebodé made three creative decisions to tell this story.

First, Rosa Parks is the narrator, which means that famous leaders like Martin Luther King are a bit in the shadow. It’s an important choice because we focus on the reasons for the boycott and forget the famous leaders. The movement aimed at helping people’s everyday life, to ensure that they had the rights they deserved as American citizens. Rosa Parks shows that this boycott wouldn’t have been a success without a massive participation of the black population. He needed to write from the perspective of someone who had experienced life among the working class.

Second, Ebodé created the character of Douglas White Junior, the white man Rosa Parks was summoned to leave her seat for. Ebodé made him a man with white skin but black origins. One of his ancestors was raped by her owner and his white genes reappeared in Douglas. He’s a complex character, hiding in a white neighborhood, feeling like a fraud among his white neighbors and an outsider in the black community. He’s in an absurd position that stems out of the absurd Jim Crow laws. The awakening of Douglas White is an interesting part of the novel even if I don’t think he was a likeable character.

And third, Ebodé added an African character into the mix. He’s named Manga Bell, a Cameroonian surname, a way for the writer to link his novel to his own history. Manga Bell is the link between Africa and the African-American community. He’s by their side as a representative of their African cousins but also as a reminder that African leaders sold their population to slave traders.

These two fictional characters gave new dimensions to the story, they allowed Ebodé to include these points of views in the story.

In my opinion the novel is flawed because it’s unbalanced. It took Ebodé a long time to introduce Rosa Parks, her husband and mother, her everyday life and to describe the starting point of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The book is 365 pages long and we are page 235 when the first day of the boycott is over. It was interesting but I would have liked more details about the rest of the fight, the victory and the court battles. The boycott lasted 381 days! The 130 remaining pages cover the boycott from day 2 till the end and Rosa Parks’s life until she’s 81.

The other flaw is that Rosa Parks doesn’t sound American. The book is written in French and she should sound like she was translated from the American. For example, she relates how embarrassed she was to be the center of attention. Je rougissais comme un piment d’Espelette (I blushed and was as red an Espelette chili) I doubt that an American woman would use the Espelette chili comparison since it’s a chili from the South West of France. She’d say something like as red as a beetroot or in French rouge comme une tomate.

Other French expression play strange tricks to the author. At a Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) meeting, someone mutters about Martin Luther King who was only 26 at the time: “Que veut donc nous imposer ce petit blanc-bec venu d’Atlanta?”. In English it becomes something like “What does this little greenhorn from Atlanta want to push us to do?” Except that in French, greenhorn is blanc-bec or literally white-beak, which is kind of ironic when talking about a black man.

Here’s another example: Ces gens-là ne comprennent que les coups de bâton et rien d’autre. A propos de bâton, tenez, à Baton Rouge… (p240) It’s impossible to translate into English because there’s a play-on-word on coup de bâton (blow with a stick) and the city of Baton Rouge, which means Red Stick for a French. It’s not something an American writer would write.

Comparisons, puns and metaphors betray the writer’s origin and cultural references. I’d already noticed that in Un homme accidentel by Philippe Besson. It’s something a writer should take into account when editing their novel. Perhaps I hear it because I switch from the French to the English language all the time and read American lit in translation. It annoyed me a bit, just as it annoyed me that in 1956, Douglas White eats some coussins de Lyon, sweets that come from Lyon but where invented in…1960. I suppose that it bothered me but other French readers might not mind.

What it worth reading? Yes. Definitely. It was interesting to see the launch of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the people and the organization that was behind it. It’s important to read these books to remember where we come from and where we could go back to if we don’t pay enough attention to all the supremacist and extreme right movements that seem to resuscitate these last years.

It’s important to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King and this is why this billet is published today. There’s an exhibition about him at the Lyon Public Library. I plan on taking my children there. Sometimes different unconnected events occur at the same time and happen to be related. I was reading Ebodé, spending time with Rosa Parks when Linda Brown, the little girl of the Brown vs Board of Education died on March 25th, 2018. It made the headlines on the radio here. Then The Origin of Others, a collection of conferences by Toni Morrison about racism was published in French. I read it right away. Meanwhile I had ordered The Kites by Romain Gary from Amazon US and decided to spread shipping costs and also bought Go Tell it to the Mountain by James Baldwin. All these unrelated and small events push the same theme in the forefront, demanding my attention. I hope I’ll have time to read the Baldwin soon. Some battles I thought were won seem to be coming back; the victories were fragile and we need to protect them.

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin – Road trip from Gaspé to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail

April 2, 2018 14 comments

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin (1988) Original French title: Volkswagen Blues.

Volkswagen Blues caught my attention because it’s a road trip from Gaspé, Québec to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail and it goes through places I’ve been to.

The trip starts in Gaspé, the far east of Québec, a beautiful place where they have the phare du bout du monde, the lighthouse at land’s end. It’s the story of a forty-years-old man from Québec City who’s looking for this brother Théo and the last time he sent him a postcard, it was from Gaspé. He meets a young woman who’s half Native Canadian – half white. She’s from the Montagnais tribe and her Indian name is Pitsémine.

Both characters don’t have a real name. The man is a novelist whose nom de plume is Jack Waterman. He nicknames the girl La Grande Sauterelle, the Tall Grasshopper. The narration alternates between calling the man The man or Jack. The girl is mostly the girl or La Grande Sauterelle and sometimes Pitsémine. It’s hard to ignore that the man chose a penname composed of Jack (like Kerouac) and Waterman (a brand of fountain pens, an instrument for a writer). I couldn’t help thinking of Van Gogh with a brother named Théo.

Names are important details as they are both on an identity quest. Jack has a sort of mid-life crisis that pushes him to look for his estranged brother. They haven’t seen each other for twenty years. La Grande Sauterelle has trouble with her mixed origins. This common point brings them together and they start a tentative friendship.

Gaspé

La Grande Sauterelle decides to embark on Jack’s VW bus and be his companion on the road. She has a kitten as a pet, his bus is like a pet to him and their common pet project is to find Théo. The starting point of their trip is an old postcard from Théo with a quote by Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who arrived in Gaspé, discovered Canada and claimed it as French territory. Théo was fascinated by the exploration of territories in Canada and the United States.

From one place to the other, they follow Théo on his trip to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail. During their journey, they learn about the Indian tribes who used to live there, revisit the story of the conquest of the West. They’re on the trails of the pioneers and their wagons. They encounter historical places of this westward migration and its difficulties. They also explore the terrible fate of the Native Americans, the massacres of the Indian wars and the extermination of the bison and the Plains Indian populations.

It’s a trip that reflects on the construction of North America. In its way, it’s a colonization war and shows that violence is at the basis of the construction of Canada and the USA. Violence against Native Americans but also violence of the climate and living conditions of the pioneers. All this is explored in mild tones, Jacques Poulin is a soft writer. His characters are friends, lovers sometimes but sex is more a comfort than anything else. They’re both adrift, looking for their place in the world. Who is the man? Is he Jack the writer, Théo’s brother or someone else? La Grande Sauterelle explains how tough life was for her parents and herself. They were ostracized in both communities, being a mixed couple was a tough choice to live with.

Volkswagen Blues has the music of mild rain, a comforting sound. I wanted to know how their trip would end, to see who they’d meet on the way and to which places they’d go. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve been to several places they visit on their trip. Gaspé, Québec City, Chicago, St Louis, San Francisco. I’ve been to some of the museums they visit and this personal side added to my reading. I enjoyed being with Jack and La Grande Sauterelle, two persons who are very different but adjust to each other and live in harmony. They accept each other the way they are, without a question, without judgment. They slip into each other’s life and habits to live this road trip together.

This is a book I bought in Montreal, which explains why I have the Quebec edition and not the French one. All the dialogues in English speaking places are partly in English, without translation. I don’t know what choice the French publisher Actes Sud made. Did they translate the passages in footnotes? As always, French from Québec has a special ring to it with its own words like chum, its expressions like faire le pouce for to hitchhike, where a French speaker would say faire du stop. I love the word cuisinette for kitchenette and still don’t understand why they didn’t find another word for coke and just use the English term.

I had a very peaceful and pleasant literary trip with these two lost souls. Volkswagen Blues is a quirky book told in mild tones but it still presses on difficult issues, to try to diffuse the pain they left as a trail. This trip is like a massage to their soul, a way to ease the tension, work in the knots they carry with them in the hope that they are gone when the journey ends.

Other review by Leaves and Pages: Crossing America in search of something ultimately undefined.

Spada by Bodgan Teodorescu – A stunning political thriller

March 25, 2018 10 comments

Spada by Bogdan Teodorescu. (2008). Not available in English. Translated from the Romanian by Jean-Louis Courriol.

Le problème, ce n’est pas cette affaire, c’est la politisation de l’affaire. C’est que Ràdoulescou, soutenu par Nénisor Vasilé, veut transformer une banale enquête policière en un conflit ethnique risquant d’affecter ma crédibilité à l’étranger et de me déstabiliser à l’intérieur. The problem doesn’t come from this case but from its politicization. The problem is that Ràdulescu, helped by Nénisor Vasilé, wants to change a mundane criminal investigation into an ethnical conflict that might threaten my credibility abroad and destabilize me at home.

And that’s Spada in a nutshell. We’re in Romania in 2008, one year after Romania joined the European Union and the speaker in this quote is the president of the country.  There’s a killer loose in the streets of Bucarest. He kills with precision, flawlessly and the police have not a clue about who he could be. The only thing they know is that all the victims are from Roma minority and all have a police record. They are criminals of all sorts, young thugs, pushy debt collectors, pimps, drug dealers and whatnots. The population of Bucarest doesn’t mourn their deaths. The police are hopeless, due to a shocking lack of means and motivation. The press takes up the case and it’s all over the place.

Spada is not focused on the resolution of the crimes and finding out who the murderer is. Spada is focused on the political treatment of it. The current president is under pressure from all parts. The elections for presidency come in a few months, he has to save face in front of the European Union leaders, the opposition sees it as an opportunity to improve their image and the leaders of minorities take advantage of it to further their cause.

Spada shows how all sides of the political game want to benefit from these unsolved murders and how the politicians in power maneuver to save face, to nip in the bud all potential consequences of this on their upcoming political campaign. The opposition impersonated by Ràdulescu sees in this debacle a way to promote their candidates and press on the inefficiency of the president. Spada also zooms on the leaders of the minorities in Romania, Roma and Hungarian communities and shows how they’re ready to use the situation at their own advantage and puff up to gain more political influence. Spada puts in broad daylight how the leading political parties manipulate the extreme right party to stir up trouble, to create some panic and steer the voters towards them. Spada also demonstrate how difficult the exercise is for the president, tacking between his home strategy and his need to respect some political correctness not to upset leaders from the West.

All the tactics, secret meetings and plans show a country where corruption is massive, a country where methods from the Communist era are not forgotten. We’re only 20 years after the fall of Caucescu. It’s a lot and not that much at the same time.

Spada brilliantly pictures how easy it is to manipulate people. We see how a population is quick to believe the worst of the Roma minority, how fast immoral politicians can turn a people against the ones they treat as second-class citizens, the ones that are “others”, “not like them”. Unfortunately, you don’t need a strong wind to fan the flames of fear and hatred. People naturally shy away from complex realities and they are always drawn to simple messages, even if simplistic thinking leads to violence and exclusion.

If I had read Spada in 2015, I would have looked at it like a novel set in a country with a rather young democracy, a country that has still work to do to get rid of the old guard and old fashioned ingrained methods. But I read it in 2018, after the Brexit referendum was launched for selfish political reasons, after the appalling pro-Brexit campaign and all the hatred that emerged afterwards. I read it after the election of a racist president in the US, after the extreme right parties have had frightening breakthroughs all over Europe. Hatred, the fear of “others”, of alterity and its use for base political tactics is what Spada is all about. As concerned Western citizens, we have to read this.

Marina Sofia tells me that Spada means dagger in Romanian. It’s the weapon used by the killer. It’s also the instrument used by the politicians and their cliques to slash the clothes of a fragile but oh so necessary democracy.

Highly recommended. Translation tragedy, unfortunately.

PS : Explanations about the French cover of the book. In French, a panier de crabes (literally a basket of crabs) is what you call in English a vipers’ nest. That’s a good image for the president’s entourage and the whole political/press small world described in this book. But in my opinion, it’s also a perfect drawing to picture the cancer of corruption and the lust for power of all the players of this dirty game.

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