CategorySwedish

The Faculty of Dreams – Sara Stridsberg: #MBI2019

Sara Stridsberg, The Faculty of Dreams (2006)
Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2019)

Well, this turned out to be my favourite book from the Man Booker International Prize longlist. It’s inspired by the life of Valerie Solanas (1936-88), who wrote the SCUM Manifesto and, in 1968, shot Andy Warhol. This is not, however, a fictionalised biography: Stridsberg describes it as a “literary fantasy”, playing fast and loose with even the known facts of Solanas’ life. For example, in real life, Solanas was born in the New Jersey city of Ventnor; in The Faculty of Dreams, she’s born in the desert town of ‘Ventor’ in Georgia – even the desert is fictional.

The narrative focus switches back and forth between different periods of Solanas’ life, up to the point where she lies dying in a San Francisco hotel room; here, the narrator will often speak directly with Valerie, in the form of a transcript. Stridsberg’s writing, in Bragan-Turner’s translation, is often invigorating to read. Here, for example, is a passage from near the beginning, looking back on Solanas’ life from her death bed:

And if you did not have to die, you would be Valerie again in your silver coat and Valerie again with your handbag full of manuscripts and your building blocks of theory. And if you did not have to die now, your doctorate would shimmer on the horizon. And it would be that time again, the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, Ventor, Maryland, New York and that belief in yourself: the writer, the scientist, me. The great hunger and swirling vortex in your heart, the conviction.

The effect of building a bespoke version of Solanas’ life in the novel is to keep the central questions of that life unresolved. It helps maintain a heightened sense of reality that runs throughout The Faculty of Dreams and makes the book all the more compelling.

Book details

The Faculty of Dreams (2006) by Sara Stridsberg, tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner (2019), MacLehose Press, 340 pages, paperback.

Read my other posts on the 2019 Man Booker International Prize here.

I Am Behind You – John Ajvide Lindqvist: a EuroLitNetwork review 

The European Literature Network has been celebrating Nordic fiction lately. I’ve contributed a review of I Am Behind You by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish horror writer known for Let the Right One In. This new novel concerns the occupants of four caravans who find themselves transported to a strange empty space, where their characters will be pressured until the flaws rise to the surface.  The translation is by Marlaine Delargy. 

You can find my review here, but do spend some time looking around, because there’s a lot to see. You can also download The Nordic Riveter, a 100-page PDF magazine collecting the new material.

Book details

I Am Behind You (2014) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, tr. Marlaine Delargy (2016), riverrun, 464 pages, hardback (review copy). 

The White City – Karolina Ramqvist: a snapshot review

I have to admit, one of the main reasons I wanted to read this book was because it won the Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize; and I loved the one book of Enquist’s that I’ve read, so naturally I’m going to like a novel that won a prize named after him, aren’t I? Well, whether that’s sound reasoning or not, it worked: I liked The White City (Karolina Ramqvist’s English-language debut, translated from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel) very much. 

Karin lives with her baby daughter Dream, in the mansion bought for her by her gangster husband John. But now John has ‘gone’ (the circumstances are not specified), and Karin’s life is crumbling around her, with the house due to be repossessed. Karin is desperate for a way out, even if that means heading further into John’s shadowy world.

The White City reads like a gangster thriller turned inside out: never mind the gangsters; this novel focuses on two people left behind. Karin’s viewpoint is disorienting at first, because she’s not so preoccupied with the background information that would be handy to us. Her world is in turmoil, and what she holds on to – what’s most vivid in her mind – is her daughter, and being a mother to Dream.

The strongest images at the start of the book are of weather and landscape – and body and movement. In this way, the ‘white city’ of the title is not just Stockholm; it can also be seen as Karin herself, coming to terms with motherhood. And there are still thrills there, ready and waiting for the right time. The White City is short and sharp – just as I like novels best.
Elsewhere 

  • Saskia Vogel writes for the Paris Review on translating The White City

Book details 

The White City (2015) by Karolina Ramqvist (2017), tr. Saskia Vogel (2017), Grove Press, 176 pages, paperback (review copy). 

My favourite books read in 2015

It’s been a year of ups and downs, really: I relaunched the blog with a new focus and name, and later with its own domain; and I feel I’ve got closer to what I wanted to achieve. However, especially in the latter part of this year, I haven’t had as much time as I expected for reading and blogging, so some of my plans are being put back into 2016 instead. I would like to dig more deeply into why I respond to certain books in the way I do (I also have plans for a series of posts going back to books I read in my pre-blogging days, to trace where the reader I am now came from). I’d still like to focus in more on the kinds of books that speak to me most, and explore older works… Well, more on that later.

For now, here are my twelve favourites from all the books I read in 2015. I’m especially struck that I have my most globally diverse list to date: authors from ten different countries; books originally written in six different languages; and, for the first time, translations predominate. More than that, though, I look over this list and think: yes, these books – in all their different ways – are what I like to read. That’s what this is all about.

Enough preamble: on to the books. The countdown is a bit of fun, but the books are all well worth your time.

MJuly12. Miranda July, The First Bad Man (2015)

I started off thinking I knew what sort of novel this was going to be: offbeat tone, middle-aged, middle-class American protagonist… I have the measure of this, I thought. Well, I was wrong. There is a good deal of eccentricity and artifice in July’s tale of a fortysomething woman whose careful household routine is disrupted by the arrival of her employers’ twenty-year-old daughter. But it is shown to be a front and a defence mechanism – and when July breaks through her characters’ façades, her novel cuts sharply.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

11. Ivan Vladislavić, The Folly (1993)

A story of how easy, and dangerous, it can be to fall for someone else’s dream. The husband of a suburban couple is captivated by a stranger who moves on to the neighbouring plot and announces that he’s going to build a new house. Soon the husband is doing all the hard work for the newcomer while the ‘house’ remains little more than an idea – but what a powerful idea. Vladislavić’s first novel is equally delicious and disturbing, reminding one of the darker shadows that lie behind its playful tone.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

10. Sunny Singh, Hotel Arcadia (2015)

A novel about the distance between image and reality, set in the heightened environment of a hotel under attack from terrorists. Singh maintains a tight focus on two characters – a war photographer who roams the corridors, and the hotel employee who uses CCTV to help her evade capture – and never leaves the building, except in flashback. But that very stylised approach helps give Hotel Arcadia its power, as reality becomes concentrated, and a few days can hold a lifetime.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

9. Dan Rhodes, When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow (2014)

Hands down, the funniest book I have read in a very long time. You can sum it up in a single line – Richard Dawkins forced to stay in a village at the vicar’s house – but you can’t capture its essence without reading. The mixture of broad, cartoonish humour and sharp satire (aimed in several directions) lulls you into a false sense of security… Then comes the moment – as in all of Rhodes’ fiction that I’ve read – where you see behind the curtain, and that is really why I love this novel so much.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

Repila

8. Iván Repila, The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (2013)
Translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes (2015)

A small, hallucinatory jewel of a book in which two boys are trapped at the bottom of a well and trying to get out. This novel plays out in my mind’s eye as a scratchy animated film, each chapter-scene limned in a slightly different colour. Repila constantly changes the imaginative space of the well through his style and imagery; and, as with The Folly above, there’s a grim reality apparent beneath the surface of metaphor.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

7. Hiromi Kawakami, Manazuru (2006)
Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich (2010)

If you’d told me last year that I would have a Kawakami novel on my favourites list this year, I may well not have believed you. I had read The Briefcase/Strange Weather in Tokyo twice and scarcely felt close to unlocking it. But Manazuru is a different kind of book, one I took to straight away: a combination of hazily blurred realities and pin-sharp emotional detail, as a woman retreats to a seaside town in search of something – possibly her missing husband, possibly herself. A third read of The Briefcase/Strange Weather is clearly in order…

[My review] – [Publisher link]

6. Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (2012)
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky (2014)

A worthy winner of what turned out to be the final Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The first page may be the single most potent scene that I’ve read all year. In each of the five main sections, Erpenbeck’s protagonist dies at a different point in time, which changes the meaning of her life and death, and the way she interacts with history. The End of Days sets an individual life against the sweep of the twentieth century, to quite marvellous effect.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

5, Paulette Jonguitud, Mildew (2010)
Translated from the Spanish by the author (2015)

The protagonist of this short novel finds mildew growing over her body, and Jonguitud’s writing creeps through the reader in the same way. The narrator merges together fallible memory, physical space, and possibly faulty perception, to the point that there’s no meaningful boundary between the real and the imaginary to begin.  We are invited into this seamless imaginative space, and can only hold on as the narrator tries to keep control of her own story.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

Enquist4. Per Olov Enquist, The Wandering Pine (2008)
Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2015)

Of all the books on this list, Enquist’s was the one that caught me most unawares, in that I wasn’t prepared for how deeply it would affect me. The Wandering Pine is based on its author’s life, combining closeness to its subject with a distance and mystery that comes from the oblique fictional framing. It’s a novel that explores what explores what it is to engage with the world through writing, not to mention one of the most powerful depictions of childhood that I have read.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

3. Lucy Wood, Weathering (2015)

Three years after the wonderful Diving Belles, Wood goes from strength to strength. In someone else’s hands, this could have been a run-of-the-mill tale of a woman returning to her rural childhood home. In Wood’s work, all lines between metaphor, place and action are erased; here, she situates her characters in a raw, unknowable landscape that haunts them as they haunt it. This author is carving out a path all her own, and I am excited to see where she will go.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

2. Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World (2009)
Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman (2015)

A woman travels from Mexico to the US with a message for her brother, in this tale where borders of all kinds are crossed or dissolved: borders of geography, language, culture. There’s a fuzzy, mutable quality to both the language and the space of this novel, where a journey to another country reads like a metaphorical (or literal!) descent into the underworld. I’m still astonished at how much ground Herrera covers in so small a space.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

Vegetarianpb

 

1. Han Kang, The Vegetarian (2007)
Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (2015)

This was the very first book I read in 2015, and nothing since has ever quite supplanted it. Three novellas, linked by the character of a woman who decides to give up eating meat, eventually refusing all food, for reasons we are never fully allowed to comprehend. We only view the main character through the eyes of those around her, as Han explores the ramifications of someone stepping outside social norms, and asks who really makes the self. The Vegetarian is an extraordinary experience.

[My review] – [Foyles affiliate link]

And if you want more favourites, here are my previous lists: 20142013; 201220112010; and 2009.

 

 

To Mervas: inside/outside

This August, Meytal from Biblibio is once again hosting Women in Translation Month; and now – albeit later than I hoped – I can join in. The first book I’ve read for this is To Mervas by Elisabeth Rynell (translated from the Swedish by Victoria Häggblom). What I want to talk about here is how R moves between, and reflects, ideas of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.

Rynell’s protagonist is Marta, whose diary-within-the-novel begins as she has received a letter from Kosti, her lover of years ago, who says he’s in the remote northern town of Mervas (which, as far as I can tell, is fictional). The whole of the novel’s first part is written as Marta’s diary, and it reveals just how much she has withdrawn into herself, having grown up in a violent household and faced the death of her son.

Marta decides to travel to Mervas and find Kosti; her journey begins in the novel’s second part, and is written in the third person. Suddenly we’re thrown into the outside, both in terms of the backdrop to the action, and the vantage point from which we view Marta. The effect of this is the dazzle of stepping out into daylight.

The third part returns to Marta’s diary, and by now she’s reached Mervas. In this section, inside and outside bleed into each other: Marta’a first-person voice symbolically gains the confidence/authority to narrate her journey through the world; and her time in Mervas becomes a kinetic means for her to address what’s holding her back. Marta has been brought out of herself, and now she can return.

Book details (publisher link)

To Mervas (2002) by Elizabeth Rynell, tr. Victoria Häggblom (2010), Archipelago paperback

David Lagercrantz, Fall of Man in Wilmslow (2009/15)

WilmslowI’m slightly wary of fiction that centres on genuine historical figures. It comes from a personal preference: that I’m not particularly interested in using historical fiction to learn about history – I want the experience of reading fiction first and foremost. So I prefer something like Mrs. Hemingway, which casts its material into interesting fictional shapes, over a thinly-veiled historical biography. The line between the two is fine, and can be tricky to walk.

Despite my natural wariness, I was intrigued by the sound of this novel by David Lagercrantz (the author who’s continuing Steig Larsson’s Millennium series). Set in 1954, Fall of Man in Wilmslow (which is translated from the Swedish by George Goulding) focuses on Leonard Corell, a police detective investigating the death of Alan Turing, who has apparently killed himself with a poisoned apple.

Corell’s position means that he has to work backwards: at first he knows simply that Turing was convicted for performing homosexual acts. Only later does he learn about Turing’s mathematical work, and later still about his work at Bletchley Park. For me, this led to a curious inversion of what can often happen with translated fiction: rather than coming across unfamiliar terms, I actually knew more about Turing’s story (in outline, if not detail) than the protagonist. Perhaps that’s why I found that Fall of Man in Wilmslow never quite shook off its biographical aspect.

In terms of the novel-as-novel, Lagercrantz casts Corell as a part-reflection of Turing: for example, he has his own flashes of brilliance, being able to deduce the kind of secret work that Turing was undertaking at Bletchley, which brings him to the attention of those who would rather that such things were kept secret. It’s an interesting frame for Turing’s story, though perhaps inevitably Corell is not as compelling a figure as the mathematician. Fall of Man in Wilmslow walks that fine line, but not quite deftly enough.

IFFP 2015: Bannerhed and Lee

RavensTomas Bannerhed, The Ravens (2011)
Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death (2014)

The Ravens is narrated by Klas, who lives on his family farm in the 1970s. He watches his father Agne toiling away, and dreams of a different life for himself. Klas loves nature, but has no wish to inherit the farm; he can see what the work has done – is doing – to his father, and doesn’t want to fall into that trap of obsession and despair; though at times it seems that something similar might be happening to him. The arrival of a city girl, Veronika, offers Klas a glimpse of what life could be; though the reality of Veronika’s life may not be as golden as Klas’ perception of it.

In terms of the IFFP longlist, Boyhood Island is the most obvious comparison to The Ravens; Bannerhed’s prose comes across as more ‘crafted’ than Knausgaard’s, but I like some of the effects Bannerhed creates. Agne’s perspective remains distant from us, even as he becomes more and more troubled; which makes those moments when we do see how much he has been affected by his illness all the more forceful. Klas’ descriptions of the natural world stand out among his narration as the moments when he is most at peace. I think there’s a good chance that The Ravens will make an appearance on the IFFP shortlist, and I wouldn’t mind if it did.

Investigation

Jung-myung Lee, The Investigation (2014)
Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim

In 1944, a guard, Sugiyama Dozan, is found hanged inside Fukuoka Prison; a more junior guard, Watanabe Yuichi, is tasked with investigating the death. All is not quite as it first seems: Sugiyama’s lips have been sewn shut, and this feared individual has a poem tucked in his pocket. What’s going on? Watanabe’s investigation comes to centre on one of the prisoners, the Korean poet Yun Dong-ju (a real-life historical figure); gradually, Watanabe uncovers the extent of what has been happening at Fukuoka, and why Sugiyama lost his life.

I’m torn over The Investigation. On the one hand, this is a book about the power of words and literature – poetry’s capacity to change minds; the tension between Watanabe’s love of reading and his new duties as prison censor; the importance for the Korean prisoners of holding on to their own names and language. I’m naturally sympathetic to a novel like that.

However, for a novel whose plot is so celebratory of language, the prose feels rather… ordinary. There’s also a touch of novel-as-history-lesson about The Investigation; this can be interesting – and it often is, in this case – but it’s not really what I want from a novel, especially one up for a literary award. I can’t really see The Investigation going any further in the IFFP: it’s OK, but so are many other novels; compared to the rest of the longlist, it’s one of the weakest titles for me.

Read my other posts on the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize here.

"He can only speak through a book and they only listen through it"

Per Olov Enquist, The Wandering Pine (2008)
Translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner (2015)

EnquistThere’s something disconcerting about meeting a veteran author’s work for the first time in what is effectively a fictionalised autobiography. You have the sense of coming to know that author more deeply than others whom you might have read for years (though of you course you don’t know them, or at least can’t be sure what you know), but without the context that a greater knowledge of the writer’s work might bring.

Perhaps that goes double for The Wandering Pine, a book that sometimes brings you almost unbearably close to its author-protagonist’s experiences, and at other times reminds you how distant it remains. Per Olov Enquist was in his early seventies when the book was first published in Swedish in 2008, though the events narrated run up to about 1990. It’s written in the third person, which has an immediate fictionalising and distancing effect; the obliqueness of its structure and style only add to that.

The first part of The Wandering Pine is one of the finest depictions of childhood that I’ve read in a long time – albeit one of a very particular childhood. The young Per-Ola, as he’s known, grows up in a village in northern Sweden; his mother is the deeply religious village teacher; he doesn’t remember his father, who died when he was six months old. There are vivid flashes of life, such as the great expedition to visit family each Christmas (a bus journey in the darkness, then though the forest on uncle’s sleigh). But Enquist’s main focus is the personal, and his book shines as it depicts Per-Ola trying to make sense of the competing forces at work in the world around him. For example, out of duty the boy invents a sin for Saturday confession, because he feels that he never has any real sins to confess. Later, he struggles to reconcile the piety of the local revivalist movement with his own burgeoning sexual awareness and the (to him) obvious links between sexuality and the movement’s emphasis on ritual: “You had to bow your head in the anguish of sin, and only in silence feel the irresistible draw of the warm, the forbidden…Where everyone else found warmth and security, he found only guilt and anxiety” (p, 96). Deborah Bragan-Turner’s translation comes into its own when treating such personal themes, as they become undercurrents in the text that bind together disparate scenes.

Per-Ola may feel that he can’t find his way in the world, but there is one thing above all that gives him a measure of security: “it becomes natural for him to feel no fear when he writes. But only when he writes” (p. 82). Indeed, it’s striking that there is so much in The Wandering Pine about writing in comparison to, say, Enquist’s personal relationships. This is very much a  chronicle of a writer’s life, in the sense that writing is how its protagonist engages with the world, and his problems and concerns are largely mediated through the act of writing.

The middle of The Wandering Pine concerns the beginnings and continuing success of Enquist’s writing career. I have my reservations about this section: it is not that it doesn’t work – on the contrary, there are some quite effective passages, such as when P.O. (no longer Per-Ola) decides to write a novel about a particularly contentious aspect of recent Swedish history, and discovers that many potential pitfalls lie in wait. But for me, this stretch of the book just doesn’t have the same intensity as the opening. I think it’s because the subject matter feels less fundamental, more concerned with the ‘busyness’ of life.

But the final section of the book heads into darker, more deeply personal territory, and regains the strength of the beginning. The hints are oblique at first: a comment that “he knows he is sinking” (p. 313); or an abrupt shift in circumstances – P.O. living alone in Paris, writing about a childhood home he never had, in more sustained detail than anything we’ve come across previously. The truth emerges: P.O. is an alcoholic. This section then becomes in some ways an inversion of the beginning: periods of treatment slip from the narrator’s memory, driving the scenes apart where at the start they were drawn together. A scene where the treatment centre inmates are forced into painful confrontations with their relatives stands in opposition to Per-Ola’s childhood, where the hurt came from what he did not have the opportunity to say to his family. This whole period is a bleak one for P.O., but he does come through; and he knows his life has turned around when he can visualise – what else? – his next book.

The original Swedish title of this book, Ett Annat Liv, can be translated as ‘Another Life’, or ‘A Different Life’ as it appears in the text of the English version. This is a reference to P.O.’s desire to hold on to his true self when being subjected to treatment (which he regards as an intrusion) for his addiction, and the new life he feels he that he gains on recovery. The Wandering Pine, on the other hand, is how Enquist describes himself as a reporter at the 1972 Munich Olympics – the tall but unobtrusive observer. The English title gives the book a different emphasis: the author as quiet documentarian of his own life, rather than the central transformation indicated by the Swedish title. In the end, I think the two titles sum up the different sides of Enquist’s book: a journey through a life that we experience as passengers, but with a vivid sense of what it was to live that life – in fiction, at any rate.

The Wandering Pine is published in the UK by MacLehose Press.

John Ajvide Lindqvist, ‘The Music of Bengt Karlsson, Murderer’ (2011)

Six months after his partner Annelie died in a road accident, our narrator moved with his son Robin to a cheap house in the forest; he got rid of the things he thought were unnecessary, but soon regretted being so rash in destroying Annelie’s things. All that remained was her old piano, which he now insists Robin learn to play. But what is the strange music that the narrator hears his son play, and what does it have to do with the murderer who once lived in their house. This is a great story (excellently translated by Marlaine Delargy), as Lindqvist ratchets up the tension and the sense that the narrator is losing his grip on reality. What makes the tale for me is the wonderful uncertainty or whether the supernatural explanation for events is valid, or whether it’s all in the mind of a desperate father.

Rating: ****

Link
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s website

Tim Davys, Amberville (2007/9)

This is the first book I’ve read for the Transworld Summer Reading Challenge; I thought I might start my posts on the challenge with a few words on why I selected the books I did. It’s quite straightforward with Amberville: anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I have a soft spot for odd books, and this was the most obviously odd title on the list – a noir thriller with a cast of stuffed animals.

The story goes like this: Eric Bear has a happy life, married to the beautiful Emma Rabbit and with a good job in advertising. But, in his past, Eric was involved with some shady characters, one of whom now comes calling – Nicholas Dove, who has heard that his name is on the Death List, which means (if the tales are to be believed) that the Chauffeurs will shortly come to escort him on the ultimate one-way journey. Dove demands that Eric find the Death List and get his name removed from it, or Emma will be the one who pays the price. The job should be straightforward enough, because the Death List is just a fable; but Eric gets his old gang back together all the same – and, of course, the truth proves more complicated than anyone thought.

So, this Scandinavian crime novel (the author is Swedish; ‘Tim Davys’ is a pseudonym) is far from the norm, and could have been ridiculous – but it’s not. What is perhaps most striking about Amberville is that Davys tells his tale with a completely straight face; one might laugh briefly at the thought of, say, a stuffed dove walking around with two stuffed gorillas for heavies, but not for very long, because it’s not funny at all in the context of the story – it’s deadly serious. Davys creates his world with such integrity that one can’t help but take it seriously. His control of voice is also superb, switching between different characters whose voices are all distinctive, no matter how brief their turn at narration (and here, I must also acknowledge Paul Norlen’s excellent work as translator).

Driving the plot of Amberville is a mystery – is there a Death List, and, if so, who’s behind it? – which is deeper for reader s than it is for the characters, because we have more questions to ask: what is this place, Mollisan Town, inhabited by walking, talking, living stuffed animals? What goes on behind the scenes to make it all work (the inhabitants of Mollisan Town know that the young animals are manufactured somewhere and delivered to the city in vans, but no one thinks to question any further)?

Well, Amberville is the first novel in a series (though that’s not clear from the edition I was reading), so the answers aren’t all forthcoming here. That’s not a problem in itself, but I do think it has a knock-on effect – it seems to me that the major revelations for this volume are made some time before the end, leaving the rest of the book to be mostly i-dotting and t-crossing, which feels somewhat anti-climactic. This is unfortunate, because most of the rest of Amberville is pacy and engaging (with an added helping of speculation about the nature of good and evil, courtesy of Eric’s brother Teddy).

My misgivings about the conclusion of Amberville make me feel a little less inclined to find out where Davys takes his series; but the momentum of the earlier parts of the book is considerable. It’s worth a look, I think.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of Amberville: Jane Bradley at For Books’ Sake; Presenting Lenore; Mike Krings; Mur Lafferty.

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