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sandWinner of the Leipzig Book Fair Prize 2012
Translated from German by Tim Mohr

I was a little nervous going into this Leipzig Book Prize award-winning novel, having previously abandoned two others. I needn’t have worried – this one is a bit of a page turner!

Somewhere in the Sahara of the early 70s, two local policemen get drunk and take an IQ test for 12 to 13 year olds.  Polidoro scores a measly 102.  His colleague, Canisades, 130.  Soon they are interrogating a suspected murderer.  Allegedly he drove into the nearby American commune and killed 4 people.  During the interrogation, it is not at all clear whether he is innocent or guilty.  Regardless he is going to pay with his life.  And then he escapes and disappears into the desert.

At the same time a nameless man – known later as Carl, because of brand of his suit  – regains consciousness in a barn somewhere in the desert.  He has a bad head injury and no memory whatsoever.  But he knows he is in mortal peril.  Fortunately he hasn’t lost his resourcefulness, because he needs it and will continue to do so for the rest of the novel.  It seems that everyone is out to get Carl – gangsters, American molls, cod psychologists, enemies posing as friends. If only he could work out his identity, there might be a resolution.  As it is, he is beaten and tortured, chased from pillar to post,  or rather from sand dune to underground mine, in the course of which he effects escapes worthy of Houdini.

At one point, as he is being chased across the dunes:

Two flat slabs of rock stood in the sand next to each other as if in a toaster.  In their slipstream a deep trench had formed.  He threw his body into it, his head between the slabs of rock , and shoveled sand onto his legs and torso.  He burrowed his arms sideways into the ground. It wasn’t difficult to make little avalanches of sand pour down on himself from the slanted sides of the trench.  Finally he rotated his head back and forth between the rock slabs. …. He breathed deeply, closed his eyes and rotated his head back and forth again. Another load of sand slid down over his forehead to his cheekbones, dusting his eyelids, cheeks and the corners of his mouth like powdered sugar.  He had only a very rough impression as to how much of his face will still uncovered.  Probably his chin and the tipof his nose.  But he couldn’t turn his head any more now.  With a little puff he blew a few grains of sand out of his nose and waited.

Buried alive.  Hellish.  And yet it’s not the scariest thing that happens to him.

The mystery of Carl is the central mystery of this novel. It may, or may not,  involve espionage, drug-dealing, gold smuggling.  It certainly involves a man named Centrois, who may, or may not,  be Carl.   After Carl’s appearance,  the first crime disappears from view. Why its inclusion?  As far as I can see, it purpose is to signal some of the games that Herrndorf will play in the main narrative. He’s not going to pander to reader’s expectations.. The question of innocence or guilt – answered in the first case at the half-way point – is never clarified with regard to Carl, although I find myself presuming guilt (for, otherwise, all these bad people wouldn’t be after him, would they?) Yes, guilty even though we can do nothing but sympathise with the poor, persecuted soul.    There is also a comic element to Polidoro and Canisades, with comedy reappearing from time to time – possibly to relieve an ever darkening mood.  Regardless, the scene with the “psychologist” is very, very funny.  And the word play on the French word “mine”,  ingenious.

Written when Herrndorf was suffering from a terminal brain tumour, it’s telling that Carl has a severe head injury.

He tried to turn his head and felt pains he couldn’t pinpoint. As if a fist were trying to push his eyes out of his head from the inside …

Is Carl’s experience a projection of the inside of Herrndorf’s head at the time of writing?  Other reviews have used the word nihilistic.   Certainly Herrndorf allows something to happen to Carl that I would find unforgiveable elsewhere, and yet, knowing the author knew his own struggles to be futile, I understand completely.


This post is stage 8 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project.

Next stop: Denmark

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Translated from French by Jean Stewart

When people talk about a policeman’s flair, or his methods, his intuition, I always want to answer:

“What about your shoemaker’s flair, or your baker’s.”

Both of these have gone through years of apprenticeship. Each of them knows his job and everything concerned with it.

The same is true of a man from the Quai des Orfėvres.

This is Maigret speaking, emphasising that his astonishing expertise has been hard won through experience.  These memoirs include the years of his apprenticeship spent transferring from squad to squad learning to recognise the certain signs you cannot mistake that are associated with criminal activity and that make solving a crime so much easier – a matter of process if you will.

To know the milieu in which a crime has been committed, to know the way of life, the habits, morals, reactions of the people involved in it, whether victims, criminals, or merely witnesses.

The point is well made through case studies, and one I would do well to remember, because I have put my reading of Simenon’s series on hold after 10 novels due to frustration at the Inspector’s seeming omniscience.  Not that Maigret has penned his memoirs in response to me.  No, he has taken exception to this chap called Sim (later Simenon), an impertinent individual who showed up one day in 1927 or 1928 at the station with permission to shadow him, promising to use in his novels only what he may see or hear … in a format sufficiently altered to create no difficulties.

Except, of course, there were difficulties. Simenon used Maigret’s name, made him famous and caught him in a mesh from which he never managed to escape.  Did Simenon’s Maigret copy from the “real” Maigret or has the “real” Maigret adopted the mannerisms of Simenon’s creation? It’s enough to make a grown man grumble or  alternatively, resort to the pen in order to set matters straight!

In a hugely enjoyable metafictional conceit, Inspector Maigret takes his creator to task over the depiction of his fictional self! In the course of which he includes the charming story of  his relationship with Madame Maigret – how they met, the first few years of their marriage, and her editorship of these memoirs.  Plus the all important settling of differences between author and Inspector to form the friendship/partnership that produced 75 novels, even if they are according to the Inspector, not entirely accurate. (Best give him the last word today, I think.)

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Phillip Ashley is 24 and his older cousin’s heir. Raised by his adored batchelor cousin, Ambrose, he is old before his time, settled in his ways and requiring nothing other than his home to be content  Yet his world is set to be shaken following Ambrose’s surprise marriage to a widowed Italian contessa and his suspicious death which follows soon after.

Ambrose’s marriage and demise happen off-page.  Phillip only hears news  through increasingly rare and distressed letters from his cousin, accusing his wife, Rachel, of controlling, manipulative behaviour and much worse. Surprisingly following Ambrose’s death, Phillip remains his heir (for reasons that surface much later) and Rachel is an impoverished widow.  When she arrives on English shores, Phillip is set for a confrontation …

..  and yet the woman’s natural charm and grace and elegance disarm him. The question is whether Rachel has ulterior motives. Is she what she seems  – a grieving widow seeking further memories of her beloved – or is the impoverished and somewhat older woman seeking to twist the boy (yes, at 24 Phillip is still a boy) around her little finger to take what she can – including his life – if necessary?

Answering that question here will ruin the novel for those who have not read it. So I won’t – actually I’m not sure that I can, because such are the sleights of the author’s hand that one minute I saw it, the next minute I did not. The  result is a slippery, suggestive text with little hard evidence and an awful lot of interpretation on the part of the characters and the reader.   For instance do Ambrose’s letters tell the whole truth, just a kernel of truth or are they the paranoid delusions of a man suffering from a terminal brain tumour?

The reader is conditioned to dislike Rachel, while her behaviour belies all suspicion. And yet, once or twice her mask slips and the paragon of virtue becomes cold and hostile. Usually when there is some tension between herself and the narrator, Phillip himself.  You see it’s impossible to see Rachel unfiltered as she truly is.  Phillip controls her image, and that corresponds to his emotional state.  When he is besotted, she is an angel of light. When he is angry or thwarted, she is grasping and manipulative.

This isn’t just a gothic,  domestic drama, although it is superb, read as such. These are elemental power games.  Rachel is well aware of her feminine allure and the advantage of her experience. Phillip is well aware of the power of money to control the woman he once hated but now does not wish to lose. This battle of the sexes looks as though it could end in happiness for both until he tips the balance so much in her favour that ….  No, no, that would be telling. What I will say is that he does it on the day he comes into his inheritance – April Fool’s Day. Need I say more? Perhaps just one more thing – it triggers a series of events that mirror those preceeding Ambrose’s death.

My Cousin Rachel is one of Du Maurier’s masterpieces, meticulously plotted and seriously unputdownable  (even on a day when I was feeling under the weather.) Thanks to the #1951club for providing the impetus to pick it up at long last. I now eagerly anticipate the forthcoming film, though I have no idea how it will convey the ambiguity of the text without driving the audience (me) insane.

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Let me start with my final event at this year’s AyeWrite, which featured two ex-journalists turned crime writers (Craig Robertson and Stav Sherez) both explaining that journalistic time pressures turned them away from their original trade. That pieces are frequently published that could be improved if time would just permit.

This preamble serves as an explanation as to why I can only provide this quick roundup of this year’s festival. Time for blogging has been scarce – reading and attending literary events does that, funnily enough.  And that is set to continue.  In the meantime I present the books I read for AyeWrite 2017 …..

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…. bookended by two novels of epic proportions.

Starting from the bottom, Stef Penney’s eagerly anticipated 3rd novel, Under a Pole Star. Set in the mid-19th century, it is her paeon to the golden age of polar exploration but with a female lead explorer. Not historically accurate then. Still it is full of good things: exemplary descriptions of the arctic landscape, an intriguing investigation of the Innuit way of life, which had/has (?) no notion of privacy (solitude in such a climate inevitably meaning death), competitive rivalries between explorers seeking to make their name. All of which I found fascinating. BUT there’s a love affair and explicit scenes that I wish she (or her editor) had excluded. (And I said as much at the event.) Such content serves no purpose in a literary novel. Leave it to Harold Robbins or Jilly Cooper. Or have some kind of advisory note for the reader.

Actually the second epic demonstrates just how a great love can been portrayed (and understood by the reader) without recourse to extended XX-rated scenes. I finally read Dr Zhivago, now marketed as the greatest love story ever told, before attending the author’s grand-niece’s event. Anna Pasternak was presenting her book Lara, The Untold Love Story that Inspired Doctor Zhivago, and she spoke with more passion than I’ve ever seen an author display before. In biographies of Boris Pasternak, Olga Ivinskaya has been dismissed as a non-entity, of no importance. That’s the official line of the Pasternak family, whose purpose it serves to ignore her. Anna Pasternak is on a mission to rectify that. In fact, she argues that without Olga, Dr Zhivago would not have been completed. She made clear that Olga paid a heavy price for her love of Boris Pasternak, and suffered in ways that could have been avoided, had he behaved differently. “I don’t forgive him for that”, she said, “but I do understand him.”

Now I had resolved not to buy any books at this year’s festival, but that statement served the bait that hooked me. More bait in that it analyses biographical parallels and their influences on the novel. Which may help me because my reading of Dr Zhivago wasn’t issue free – particularly in relation to character development. More to follow once I’ve read Lara.

2nd from the top is Ron Butlin’s latest Billionaire’s Banquet. I’ve been on a mission to read all of Butlin’s prose since I was bowled over by The Sound of My Voice. According to its strapline Billionaire’s Banquet is an immorality tale for the 21st century. Make of that what you will! It is the story of how Hume (a unemployed philosopher), St. Francis (an ex-seminarian), and the Cat (a mathematician) become successful, but in order to do so, they must lose their moral compass and their absolute values. The novel starts in 1985 (mid-point of the Thatcher years, when the rich were getting richer and the poorer, including our main characters, poorer), jumps to 2005 (the year Scotland hosted of the G8 summit), before jumping again to 2016. In 1985 the 3 characters are sharing an Edinburgh tenement flat – one the author once lived in, though hopefully not in an understairs cupboard like his character Hume! By 2016, they are … that would be telling because those circumstances are made possible by the pivotal events of 2005, including the Billionaire’s Banquet of the title.

After establishing a successful butler service for the rich of Edinburgh’s New Town, Hume finds himself hosting this highly symbolic fundraiser, attended by Edinburgh’s hoi polloi. Ten lucky donors will receive refunds, and dine like billionaires, while the remainder will feed on rice and water, as a reminder that the rich feed off the poor. Unfortunately for Hume the event coincides with the London Bombing, and activists, in Edinburgh for the G8 summit, are outraged that the event is not cancelled to respect the dead. Hume is sabotaged by both external forces and internal – the hoi polloi are not as decorous you would expect –  and the resulting descent into mayhem is a hilarious and merciless piece of satire.

It also left me wondering at what point an immorality tale becomes an ammorality tale? Perhaps Hume, once he pins down Kant’s Perpetual Peace, would answer that?

In amongst the naughtiness and (advisory note alert) much profanity in the first two sections, the philosophy and the social politics (both – thankfully – worn lightly) is a portrait of the changing face of the Scottish capital. The Edinburgh of 1985 is markedly different from that of 2016, and the differences are documented, I suspect, quite thoroughly over the course of the novel. At times I was unsure whether Butlin was celebrating or lamenting, (perhaps both) but I can see myself using Billionaire’s Banquet as an unconventional travel guide during a future excursion.

Finally I was delighted that Stav Sherez was invited to AyeWrite! It provided the impetus to acquaint myself with his much lauded Carrigan and Miller series – starting with book 3. I wouldn’t advise anyone else to do this. I think it gives too much away about book 2. That said,The Intrusions is an unsettling read, based on the realities of the web, as we possibly don’t know them. Well, maybe we suspect them, given recent reports of how smart devices on the internet of things can be used to spy on individuals.

The intrusions occur when a “ratter” uses RATs (remote access trojans) to not only to spy on his victims but to play mindgames, to bully and intimidate. Once he has broken them down, he claims them and kills them horribly. The novel is a police procedural which follows detective sergeant, Geneva Muller, as she races to establish pattern, motive, and to fathom out the technology, not just to get one step ahead, but to avoid becoming the the next victim. There are internal pressures too. An audit has been instigated as a result of anomalies in the previous case, and the career of her boss, Jack Carrigan, is on the line.

I’m not yet invested in Jack Carrigan. That will most likely change when I’ve read the first two novels. For me the fascination of The Intrusions was the technology. The novel is a showcase for tools, some possibly imaginary (though I suspect not) that can both enable crime and prevent it – but at what cost to our privacy?  Or is privacy just an illusion these days?

Question from audience: Did your research change your behaviour? “Yes,”said Sherez. “There’s always a piece of blue-tac over the camera on my computer when I’m working.” And that’s why there’s now a piece over the camera on my device as I type this.

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Translated from German by Leila Vennewitz

Subtitled Or Something to Do with Books

It was the subtitle that reeled me in.  I dived in expecting this to be full of nostalgia for the books that influenced the 1972 Nobel Laureate. There is some of that but it is not the main focus. Set in the years 1933 -1937, this is a memoir of Böll’s formative schooldays which just happened to coincide with the years in which the Nazis consolidated their powerbase.  So fond school memories, with which Böll begins most chapters, are soon related to the background. There are bigger isues to deal with.

Written some 45 years after the events, Böll is careful not to let hindsight impinge on the story.  His aim is to describe the boy he was and the family he belonged to together with the impact that events had on their lives and the city they lived in (Cologne). The book ends very specifically on February 6, 1937, the day Böll graduated from high school, but he makes no other claims to historical accuracy with regard to the chronology of events. As he says, all his notes were destroyed during the war.

Böll’s family was Catholic with bohemian leanings and a natural aversion to Nazism. Outsiders though not belonging to any persecuted minority. They did not join the Party, did not attend rallies and, for a while at least, did not have to compromise. At school Böll was bored and, often played truant with his mother’s collusion, bicycling through the Rhine valley, often with a girl for company. When he did attend school, he studied Mein Kampf in great detail …

Our teacher, Mr Schmitz, a man of penetrating, witty, dry irony … used the hallowed text of Adolf Hitler the writer to demonstrate the importance of concise expression, known also as brevity. This meant that we had to take four or five pages from Mein Kampf and reduce them to two.

Thus, says Böll, not entirely tongue in cheek, I can thank Adolf Hitler the writer for some qualification to be a publisher’s reader and a liking for brevity.

If it hadn’t been for the Nazis, these would have been an idyllic few years. But the face of the German world was changing and Böll’s memoir conveys the shock of the general populace by events in 1933 such as the burning of the Reichstag, the signing of the Concordat (described by Böll as a body-blow) and the execution of alleged Communist conspirators in Cologne. Still the hope that Hitler wouldn’t last long died on June 1934 with the Röhm putsch. It was the dawn of the eternity of Nazism.

As the Nazi grip tightened, and the family finances deteriorated because Böll’s tradesman father couldn’t obtain any contracts, it was decided that material survival took priority over political survival, and that one member of the family had to join a Nazi organisation. His elder brother, Alois, was elected by the family council. Alois never really forgave them for it, even though in those early National Socialist years there were way of bribing your way out of the obligatory duties

The family’s biggest worry though was what’s to become of the boy? They all knew that Hitler meant war. Böll talks about his generation being schooled for death, the greatest honour being to die for the Fatherland. Which profession would offer a safety blanket? The priesthood? But Böll had discovered the opposite sex and was not willing. So with membership of the Nazi Labour Front an inevitability, Böll decided to do something with books and obtained an apprenticeship in a quiet, non-Nazi bookstore.

As the memoir ends, the illusion of remaining an outsider prevails. Böll has dodged a metaphorical bullet. As history shows, he wouldn’t be so lucky dodging the real ones which began to fly just two years later.

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December 2017 marks the centenary of Böll’s birth, so to commemorate the event, I intend to work my way through Melville House Publishing’s Essential Böll Series.  I started with the memoir to have a biographical reference point when (re-)reading his fiction.

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About 12 years ago I started my 20th Century Challenge – to read 100 authors, one book for each year of the 20th century. The idea was to complete it by the time I turned 50.  Then I started this blog and got distracted.  The new deadline is to finish the project in the next 18 months (or by the time I hit 60).  If all my choices are as delightful as the 1917 entry, the prequel to Morley’s more famous The Haunted Bookshop,  then this won’t be any hardship.

imageParnassus on Wheels is a delicious bibliophilic delight with none of the cloying sweetness I’ve tasted in other book of this nature.

Miss Helen Mcgill lives on the farm with her brother Andrew. When he become an author, he  neglects his farmer’s duties, and Helen finds herself running the farm as well as the household. Naturally she resents this, so when she is given an unexpected opportunity to escape she takes it.

One day, out of the blue, Mr Roger Mifflin shows up with his horse-drawn travelling bookshop, the eponymous Parnassus on Wheels.  He has decided that life on the road is too lonely and is hoping to sell his business to Andrew.  But Andrew is not at home.  Helen is, and she is in the mood for an adventure.

An avid reader herself, she believes that

When you sell a man a book, you don’t sell him just twelve ounces of paper and ink and glue – you sell him a whole new life.

When she buys herself the Parnassus, she buys herself a whole new life.  She sets off with Mr Roger Mifflin, who will first train her in the art of preaching the gospel of good books before he catches his train back to New York.  Now he could sell coal to a coalman whereas Helen has no natural patter and a knowledge of the book trade that is less than encyclopaedic. Still she shows promise. A series of misadventures, however, results in an extension of her apprenticeship, during which Roger and Helen become unwittingly fond of each other.  Though they don’t recognise it until the machinations of her brother, incandescent at losing his unpaid skivy, threaten to deprive Roger of his freedom.  It is now Helen’s turn to ride to the rescue.

This a charming romantic comedy between an unlikely couple: Helen, a matter-of-fact spinster approaching middle-age and Roger,  a funny looking-man with a red beard, who, for all his salesmanship, might possibly read more books than he sells.  Set in a world in which the First World War had yet to encroach although there is a light-touch political undertone regarding the revolt of womenhood as Miss Helen McGill strikes out for the right to make her own decisions.  Three cheers for her and for the man who enables and defends her right to do so, Mr Roger Mifflin! While we’re cheering another three for all the books they discuss along the way!

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Translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

When Ali Smith describes a collection of short stories as the best she has ever read it proves impossible not to follow through on that recommendation (even if the book then lies on the shelf awaiting its reader for a further two-and-a-half years!) Anyway now that this reader has read it,  I can’t say that I agree (because – you know – Chekhov) but I can say that it is a pretty marvellous collection and certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.

It is the first time Fraile’s stories have appeared in English and it is thanks only to the efforts of the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, to persuade a reluctant author that they have done so.   Jull Costa first submitted a few of her translations to a committee, comprising of author, his wife and his daughter. They meticulously examined these around the kitchen table and  began to trust the translator when they realised that her pen was as loving as the author’s own. Fraile died during the translation of the stories that make up Things Look Different in the Light, but by that time the family trusted Jull Costa implicitly and allowed her to complete the collection, which consists of 29 stories covering the author’s career from 1954-2010.

Many are only 5 or 6 pages long, with the longest being 10 or 11 pages, so this is a collection which is ideal for carryng around and reading whenever there is a spare 5 minutes.  What I particularly enjoyed was the immediacy of setting, the author ensuring that the reader is given a complete set of  bearings within the first couple of paragraphs.  No flailing around wondering, who, what, when?  For starters, there isn’t time in vignettes such as these and secondly, there are a multitude of situations, most from everyday life.  Ordinary people, everyday interactions and objects,  situations we recognise and can transpose into our own lives, but filtered by Fraile to show how special or influential they may be, and how appreciative we should be.  As the dying grandmother says in The Last Shout

The thing is that miracles happen so often, they seem normal to us, the morning comes and then the night, the sun and the moon rise and set, the earth gives us harvest after harvest, and we say I’ll do that tomorrow and tomorrow we’re still alive to do it. …. Reality is a miracle.

The emotional registers are varied. There are straight-forward humorous stories with punchlines as in the title story  Things Look Different in The Light  for what can possibly go wrong when the foreman doesn’t communicate with the underground sign-painter?  In others the humour is altogether more wry as in Typist or Queen where the narrator gently mocks himself and his other male colleagues for their swarming around the beautiful office queen bee, Carmencita.    The Cashier is another queen whose reign over the restaurant’s cash register is supreme until a chance of romantic happiness appears.  Sadly ’tis but a fleeting moment as the uncertainities of life intervene. In  other stories the melancholy consists of the inevitable passing of time:  The Lemon Drop contains not only a little nostalgia for the sweets we used to enjoy as kids but also the memories they bring back when we eat them as adults;  Child’s Play surprisingly defines old age as a darkening of the world. As they age Flora’s and Martita’s need for light increases each day

They needed light so that their hair would shine and  heir eyes sparkle as they had when they were twenty, so that they could …. still be able to pick out the bees and the ducks on cross-stitch patterns.

Finally they install a chandelier that emits so much light, that when they die their bodies glow in the dark … For a while at least.

This slight magical element reappears in one of my personal favourites, The Shirt. It belongs to Fermin Ulía, a sailor, who falls for Maureen, his girl in the port of Dover.

He stood staring at her for a full three minutes, two of which he devoted to her nose alone. She had a turned-up nose that made her look as though she had a cold, but a very attractive cold, with no complications.

He comes back from that trip with a tartan flannel shirt that Maureen had chosen for him and ever after wears it whenever he goes sailing. But what happens on the day he fails to wear the shirt?

Each reader will have their own favourites here.  I asked Ali Smith to pick out hers, when she signed the foreword for me.  Without hesitation she highlighted Berta’s Presence, Things Look Different In the Light, and The Bookstall – all three have communication as their main theme.  My favourites have tragedy or old age at their core, so no surprise that my absolute favourite – Reparation – has both.  Is that because old age is a tragedy even if it approaches us all?  Perhaps a change of viewpoint is needed.  Things do look different in the light of the old lady’s comments at the beginning of this review.  Reality is a miracle, and it is truly a miracle that some of us ever reach old age.  So the lesson is to appreciate the small moments and enjoy.  These stories are as good a starting point as any.

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Stage 7 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is my final post for Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog. Thanks, Stu.  I had a blast!

Next stop: Africa

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