Patrick Süskind: Perfume

December 5, 2021

     Spoilers ahead!

I’ll have to admit to being vaguely disappointed with my return to this novel, and I’m not sure yet that I’ve completely worked out why. I read it nearly twenty years ago, liked it, watched the film and really enjoyed that, and remember it as a really good version of the story, which clearly lends itself to the visual medium. I can see I will have to watch the film again.

The novel focuses on the sense of smell, and this marks it out as very different from any other: this was why it was such an international bestseller. A baby is born, who has no personal odour, and this marks him out as different: both imperceptible to others, and also a source of discomfort or alarm to them when they perceive that there is something unusual about him. And anyone who has any close relationship with him at any point in his life, meets a disastrous end. Monstrous by nature, repelling others, he has a strong sense of self-preservation, and the world’s most powerful and sensitive nose, in that he can identify and remember any odour he encounters, filing it away in his memory.

There’s a lot of straining with the language, at first as the writer strives to describe the indescribable, both in terms of the appalling odours of seventeenth-century Paris where the story begins, and the olfactory experiences of Grenouille, the hero. We have to be convinced just how special he is, and at times the language is just over the top, I’m afraid. Conceptually, Süskind’s single idea is astonishing, and he does marvellous things with it at times, but in the end it’s also a limitation.

At an early age the boy is apprenticed to a tanner, then insinuates himself into a post as a perfumier’s journeyman. Having mastered the craft, he sets off and isolates himself from all human contact and odour and lives in a cave for seven years, before making his way to Grasse, the centre of French perfumery. Here he creates a series of personal smells for himself, and gradually realises the power he has over people in terms of manipulating their responses to him through the scents he chooses to use.

He then, via the secrets of the craft and a series of murders, creates powerful human scents capable of overwhelming the rational behaviours of crowds, ultimately succeeding in preventing his own execution for murder, and eventually driving a demented crowd to tear him to pieces.

That bald summary in a way fails to do justice to Süskind’s achievement, but also shows its limitations. It’s both a tour de force, woven from a single original idea, and a story that doesn’t hold that convincingly together when looked at too closely. Just suspend disbelief for a while and enjoy, then move on…

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob

November 30, 2021

     ‘Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is… the perfection of imprecise forms.’ I love that.

I’ve been waiting a couple of years for this one finally to come out in English, and I resisted buying the French translation a year ago because I wanted Jennifer Croft’s English version. She’s translated other Olga Tokarczuk novels so well, and I was not disappointed here: she creates atmosphere and tone consistent with her other successes, and I felt I was reading the same Olga, if you see what I mean. Not knowing Polish well enough to read it means I can’t comment on the ‘feel’ of the translation, but this doesn’t alter the fact that translators are really important.

Nor is it possible to summarise the plot of a 900+ page novel, so I shan’t even attempt. Suffice it to say it centres around an eighteenth century Jewish heresy in Eastern Poland led by Josef Frank, who presented himself as the Messiah and urged his followers to accept Christian baptism. Wikipedia is your friend here if you want more details. The whole is also set against the backdrop of the beginning of the collapse and dismemberment of the Polish Commonwealth. But there’s so much more besides, with Tokarczuk’s familiar erudition and digression on display throughout. I found myself thinking at one point, is this Poland’s take on magic realism, with her blend of history and fiction?

I have to admit that this book will not be to everyone’s taste, as the arcana of Judaism and Jewish history is pretty pervasive; at times it all felt a little rambling and self-indulgent, but this did not put me off. It is a book to lose yourself in, a bit like Flights, where you are never quite sure where you are heading next. I thought of Tristram Shandy at times, the endless shaggy dog story; sink into it and go with the flow. It took me a fortnight.

You would have to say it’s a particularly Polish novel, with the focus on time and place, as well as a religious novel in some ways. There is the concept of the Messiah to wrestle with: Christians have had one, but the Jews not, so how will they know when theirs finally comes? And because considerable parts of the novel are set on what was then the border between the Polish Commonwealth and the Ottoman empire, Islam, the third religion of the book, also figures a good deal.

It’s very easy to see why traditional Polish Catholics hated and denounced this book on its publication. Tokarczuk is genuinely interested herself and through her characters in all sorts of heretical and semi-heretical notions; it’s a philosophical and theological minefield for a Catholic reader, as she validates elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And interestingly, too, when it comes to the Catholic Church interrogating Josef Frank and his followers to see if they are genuinely seeking to be united with the one true church, the questioning style and behaviour of the inquisitors is – deliberately – reminiscent of the behaviour of Communist party interrogators during various purges, as they have been recorded in history books. The atmosphere is sinister, threatening, ominous; the Church has spies and agents everywhere, just like the KGB

And then there are the scenes – based on history – set in Catholic Poland’s holiest shrine at Częstochowa. We are shown religious ignorance and trickery on both sides. In the end, for me, some of the most interesting and intriguing parts of the novel were those broader explorations of the meaning of religion, spirituality and the human future in the context of eternity.

Clearly it’s not a book for everyone. If you’re curious, I’d say go for it, but it’s a challenge. It’s evident why Olga Tokarczuk is a Nobel class novelist, for what that’s worth, with this as part of her complete works. I intend to read it again, hopefully in the not-too-distant-future.

As an ex-English teacher I’m a stickler for correctness, and there were quite a few bizarre typographical offerings in this version, particularly in the area of hyphenation, where I thought there were established conventions, but hey…

Richard M Watt: Bitter Glory

November 11, 2021

     Although I bought this book some twenty years ago, I’ve only just finished it, and the timing is perfect, as today is Polish Independence Day

It’s an account of the life of the Second Republic, from start to finish – only 20 years – and I finally have a clear and detailed understanding of the country my father grew up in. The opposition between Pilsudski’s (perhaps romantic) vision of a Poland of many peoples, and Dmowski’s homeland for ethnic Poles only is there right from the outset. Josef Pilsudski’s vision was tried in the Second Republic; Roman Dmowski’s was artificially imposed and created by the Soviet Union and its puppets after the Second World War. And so we have the situation that so many of us in the Polish diaspora find ourselves.

We could have done with more maps, and better copy editing and checking of the book, but I’ll let those pass.

The task was truly Herculean: resurrect a country which had been abolished for 120 years, from three disparate parts run under three very different administrations, with a resentful Germany to the West and an unpredictable Soviet Union to the East. The Versailles conference fixed the Western borders: the East was to be a DIY affair, settled briefly and very resentfully after the 1920 war with the Soviets. So for its entire existence, the republic was hemmed in by unfinished business. The Western Allies, savaged by the Great War, didn’t really care that much.

The book is very broad in scope and detail. In particular, the ethnic and national conflicts on the Eastern borders – the Kresy – are explained and contextualised with great care, and the various approaches to the issues, crystallising in the personalities of Pilsudski and Dmowski, are also clarified. The permanently scarred relations with the former ally Lithuania are also explained. It really does become evident that for so many reasons, and not just the fault of Poles – the new Poland was not really a viable state in the long term. Perhaps that should not surprise us?

Economically, the situation was horrendous: too many peasants on too many small farms. Little industry. No coherent communications. And all was made worse by the fact that no Poles had any experience of ruling or governing. The 1920s were totally chaotic politically, through incompetence and corruption. The roots of the awkwardness of the church date from this time, in a flawed concordat with the Vatican, and of course, antisemitism was always lurking in the background, to come to the fore in the 1930s.

Which was the more dangerous potential enemy, Germany or the Soviet Union? And where were reliable allies to be found? Increasing chaos led to the virtual end of attempts at democracy by 1930 and the country was thereafter rules by authoritarian governments who exploited anti-Jewish feeling when it suited their interests, disgracefully supported and encouraged by the church. For most of the life of the republic, the military were heavily involved in government. There was scandalous trickery used to pass a new constitution in 1930, and a new rigged electoral system.

Things clearly were unravelling all over Europe as the 1930s progressed and Poland was no exception; under an authoritarian rule, swaggering at times as if it were a great power, it waited its turn to be picked off by Hitler…

It’s an exhaustive and authoritative book, with thought-provoking evaluation and conclusions. And though Watt’s picture is very dark, we must acknowledge what was achieved: Poland was brought back into existence effectively enough to survive independently for two decades, and was not to be erased from the map permanently again by the Second World War, though the epoch of the People’s Republic drew out the agony for another four decades and more. The beginnings of a modern nation-state, with national self-awareness took shape. And today’s Poland still has plenty of crocodiles to wrestle with…

COP 26: Cop-Out

November 7, 2021

Warning: politics ahead

It’s clear from the pitiful reactions in what passes for the media in our country that Greta Thunberg is yesterday’s news: all they seem to have been interested in this week is her use of four-letter words when she sang songs with fellow activists. And yet, amid all the posturing of the politicians and the clowning of our prime minister, it is through her and the other protesters that our only hope seems to shine. Why can’t we just get on and sort a few things out?

Given the will, our government could pass laws that would begin to make a real difference to our current over-use of fossil fuels, both as energy and in the production of plastics, and the amount of pollution and waste we produce.

Give food and drink retailers a couple of years, and then all single-use plastic cups, glasses, cutlery and the like are banned. There are alternatives, or we can change our habits.

Give those retailers a couple of years and then all single-trip plastic and glass drinks bottles are banned. Recyclable plastic and glass, as well as aluminium cans, should all carry a deposit. Other countries have been doing this for years: is it so hard for Britain?

Give retailers a couple of years and then all plastic packaging of fruit and vegetables in shops and supermarkets is banned. France has just passed such legislation.

Private jets should be banned. Aircraft should be capable of carrying a minimum number of passengers, or have only cargo space on board.

Internal flights within the UK should be banned. France has passed legislation restricting internal flights where trains are available. We have public transport, and if it needs improving, this must happen. People will need to plan journeys accordingly. There can be exceptions for emergencies if need be. Everyone should be allowed only one return air trip per year, to a destination of their choice. This could be marked on one’s passport, so that it could be regulated fairly. There should not be a market for people to sell the entitlements they choose not to use.

Driving should be charged by the mile. Since MOT certificates record mileage, people could pay the requisite rate based on mileage in the previous year in order to obtain their new certificate. Certificates could be brought in for new cars, without the need for the mechanical testing at 3 years plus. Electric cars could be charged at 50% of the annual rate, petrol vehicles at 100%, diesel at 150%, SUVs or large-engined cars at 200% or higher.

These charges should apply to all commercial vehicles too: this should encourage more efficient use of more polluting vehicles, or even shift some freight away from roads.

Public transport needs to be encouraged and improved. All public transport is free in Luxembourg. Austria is bringing in an annual travel card which costs 3€ per day. Small countries clearly have an advantage, but we already have zoned travel cards in London, and surely this idea could be extended. Germany already has a range of regional travel cards. It may be that government subsidy is needed initially to get such schemes off the ground. What are governments for?

Enormous amounts of energy are wasted because our housing stock is so poorly insulated. Regulations for new buildings need to be much tighter. Much more encouragement to homeowners to improve insulation of existing properties is needed.

The switch from using fossil fuels for heating and cooking is probably the one which will have the biggest financial effect on families, and this is the area where government investment and subsidy should probably be concentrated.

It’s clear that in this country we can generate a large proportion of the energy we need from renewable resources. We need to do more of this, and build more solar and wind farms. We should also develop tidal energy since we are an island, and look to more efficient ways of storing electricity in batteries. The very last thing we need is more nuclear power: the cost of this would be paid by future generations over many years, and people will resent this when they see other countries who did not go down this futile route benefitting from much cheaper power.

I’m sure like-minded readers could easily add a few more suggestions. But we need action; we need governments to take the situation seriously. They can do this by doing what they are elected for: to pass legislation, and to govern. Plenty of people are already doing their bit, but individual effort is not enough.

Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

November 7, 2021

     This was a fascinating and unusual approach to autobiography. Jung does not present his life in a linear fashion, but through the recalling of significant moments and epiphanies, especially of his childhood. He gives a very powerful and detailed picture of the centrality of religion to his early years, and I quickly recognised a polymath striving to find his way through so much curiosity and so many paths of knowledge. He shows how he arrived at his earliest glimpses of the workings and power of the unconscious, and the shadow, in his life. When he moves on to his development as an analyst, we can see clearly the evolution of his therapeutic methodology, and how it has influenced the ways many current practitioners work. There is an astonishing bravery and confidence during those days of psychoanalysis in its relative infancy, almost a ‘make it up as you go along’ approach. Jung’s split with Freud is explained quite clearly: Jung could not go along with his colleague’s attribution of sexual origins to all neuroses, and quite soon was ploughing his own furrow, Freud merely being an episode in the progress of Jung’s life and work.

I find the descriptions of various cases fascinating and often wonder if such arcane and weird-sounding issues present themselves nowadays, as presented themselves to the likes of Freud and Jung, or whether today’s mental health issues are very different.

Some chapters are very challenging, both to read and to understand; Jung’s confrontation with the unconscious felt almost like an episode of madness to me, and the revelations he enjoyed reminded me of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. I was continually astonished by his phenomenally detailed memory for his dreams and visions.

Jung’s studies, reading, researches and thinking represent an enormous work of synthesis across many fields, psychology, history, mythology, alchemy, religion, literature, and reflect the complexity both of his past and development, and through him, our understanding of that of the human race as a whole. There seems to be a much broader scope in his approach to the human mind and consciousness than in Freud’s work, as far as I can recall it. And I was intrigued – and will reflect further on this – by a sense of his influence on Philip Pullman’s vision of the afterlife as pictured in the Northern Lights trilogy…

As his life progressed, there was increasing emphasis on the importance and significance of the spiritual element, in its broadest sense, to human life, and the consequences of our neglect or rejection of this aspect of ourselves. I was also struck by Jung’s humility, in spite of the scope of his life’s achievement, by his recognition of his own, and humans’ limitations generally, and by the way he reached acceptance and contentment in his terms, as his life drew to a close.

Not an easy read, but a very thought-provoking and satisfying one.

Frieda Fordham: An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology

November 1, 2021

     I’ve been re-visiting Jung recently, and went back to this introductory text, which is quite old now (Fordham actually knew Jung towards the end of his life). Briefly I wondered why I hadn’t chosen a more recent general text, but I’m finding – perhaps because of my age – that older texts are better organised, more carefully expressed and often much better referenced; this one has an excellent glossary. I’m sure the receptiveness of our brains changes, and has been shaped by our age, and our education, too.

One thing that is quite striking is how dated some of the attitudes and behaviours ascribed to men and women sound today; Jung and Fordham were both of a particular time, and this particular flaw does not invalidate their explanations. In fact, a reaction to what we now call sexist language and attitudes is a useful touchstone in a way, for evaluating the soundness of the underlying ideas: you slow down as you read in order to argue with the text and check how sound the arguments are.

The importance attributed to the unconscious is central to Jung’s exploration and understanding of how we humans ‘work’ mentally and emotionally, and it’s stressed that the unconscious isn’t just a sort of dustbin for the unacceptable parts of us, but something far broader and deeper. Accepting that there is much going on below the surface that is an integral part of us is part of a journey to wholeness; concepts such as the animus/anima and the shadow can be helpful in furthering our self-understanding.

I had not recalled – or perhaps not noticed previously – how much Jung focuses on the second half of life, and this is surely part of the reason that I have returned to his after a good many years. Neither had I taken on board his interest in alchemy, as part of his researches, and reflecting on more recent times I wondered if he would have explored the uses of various psychotropic drugs…

Again I have been struck by the modernity in his methods of analysis, particularly the idea that the work done by analyst/counsellor and client/worker but be open, shared: both are working towards a resolution of the issues and there is no cut-and-dried interpretation to be handed down like stone tablets from analyst to ‘patient’. Such an approach is intrinsic to so much contemporary counselling and psychotherapy.

Overall I have been impressed by the breadth of Jung’s research and knowledge and the way he has attempted to synthesise so much material. It’s not the complete answer for me, but a very useful tool to have on the journey, and Frieda Fordham’s book is mostly a very lucid introduction.

Central Asia: Though Writers’ Eyes

October 29, 2021

     If you’ve never done any armchair exploration of Central Asia, then this anthology isn’t a bad place to start. Although the two sketchy maps are inadequate, there is a very good bibliography and pointers to further reading for those who are more curious.

Initially I found the book odd from the conceptual point of view, consisting as it does of a series of chapters focused on key places in the history of the region, but arranged alphabetically. However, the region is comprehensively covered, with a history of each place supplemented by lengthy quotations from the writings of a good number of travellers though the ages. But the main focus of much of the narrative and quotation is the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with particular emphasis on the ‘great game’, the rivalry between Russia and Britain as we feared the former’s designs on the jewel of the empire, India. So overall, it feels a little unbalanced. There is a good selection of historical photographs, and I have to say my overall opinion of the book gradually improved as it progressed. Quite a few of the books I felt moved to read at some point turned out to be available as free e-book downloads too, via the Internet Archive, which can’t be bad. I think, in the end though, I’d already read rather too much about Central Asia before coming across this book for it to be very enlightening.


October 27, 2021

The idea of the bildungsroman – the novel that shows a character’s development through childhood to maturity, with a focus on the influences that shape the personality, is an interesting one, that has fallen out of favour: I think it was a creature of the earlier days of psychology when it was not only scientists but also writers who explored, in their different ways, how we become who we are.

And we can look at our own lives from that perspective, too, although it seems to have become easier as I have grown older, and have a greater span of time to look back on, as well as some greater clarity about the sort of person I’ve turned into. I can perceive all sorts of influences, first from my parents, obviously, and then from significant friends and acquaintances at various points in my earlier life. And I suspect there comes a point where I cease to be strongly influenced by anyone any more; perhaps I am now ‘fixed’ as it were…

I realise that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre comes from the days before psychology, yet it’s surely a novel about the formation and development of Jane’s personality, from the malign influences of her early days to the kindlier ones of her friend Helen Burns, and some of her teachers at Lowood School. Her strength of character is tested by her feelings for Rochester, as is her moral sense; her acquired wisdom happily leads her to refuse the wiles of St John.

I can now remember very few details from Samuel Butler’s later and now sadly neglected novel The Way of All Flesh, but there is a clear picture of the malign influence of his overbearing father, and his struggles to break away from him, become a separate individual, and make his own choices about his life, which may have a chance of leading to happiness.

And then there’s the modernist James Joyce, and his marvellous A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, autobiographical in places, and using the stream of consciousness to explore the inside of the character’s head. Here it’s the suffocating combination of the small-mindedness of Irish patriotism and Catholicism combined that leads to breakdown and the decision that the only way to escape is exile… The oppression of the child Stephen is evident in that novel, and it’s explored further, and differently, in parts of Ulysses.

Various other titles occur to me, and also the idea that all of these novels about the development of an individual into their own person, finding themselves and creating their lives, came along at a similar time in my own personal development and growth: I first read almost all of these texts avidly, and maybe not all that critically, in my later teens and early twenties. I remember being powerfully moved by the search for meaning undertaken by the hero of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, by various of Hermann Hesse’s heroes, perhaps particularly Siddhartha, and even by some of D H Lawrence’s characters.

I often return to Socrates’ famous dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, at times like this, and realise that perhaps not everyone does look back and consider the ways in which their lives have been shaped in key ways at certain times. Parental influence is perhaps the most powerful, given that it lasts the longest; then there is that of certain friends at particular moments, and perhaps later in life of people whom we might describe as mentors, maybe at crucial moments in the development of a career. You can’t undo your past, of course, but seeing clearly can be useful, as well as realising the moments where the choices made were actually one’s own, and therefore acts of conscious control over one’s life. And there is Umberto Eco’s (I think) observation, that one who reads lives hundreds or thousands of lives…

Iain Banks: Espedair Street

October 27, 2021

     Long ago I’d read and liked a couple of Iain Banks novels – SF probably – but wouldn’t have picked up this one except for it being a book group choice. The title made me think: Espedair/despair? espérer=hope (in French)? To me it seemed apt, for a story of a working class youth becoming a mega rockstar, torn away from his roots and home, class and country, having enjoyed the wealth, sex, drugs and fame, and brought to the point of wondering what the hell was the point of it all, or anything, really…

The first thing that struck me was Banks’ amazing fluency in his use of our language, lovely writing and imagery that seemed to flow effortlessly from his pen (or keyboard), lyrical at times without being poetic, although he gets to indulge that streak when he creates the rock band’s lyrics, I suppose.

The narrator is the lyricist, whose talents enable the band to break through to the big time. And he must leave his Glasgow roots, his past and his working-class origins, and the people he knows, for that kind of success happens elsewhere among different people. There is Catholic guilt, poverty, a woman on whom he has a teenage crush…and leaves behind.

Banks creates a vivid and convincing picture of the excesses of the success enjoyed by rockstars with stratospheric wealth: parties, sex, drink, drugs, recklessness, all verging on insanity. There’s an equally convincing portrait of the seamier and more violent sides of Glasgow life. Gradually, and piecemeal, a powerful series of questions forefront themselves in the narrator’s mind, and herein, for me, lies the brilliance of the novel. Have all these youthful years of success and excess been an utter waste, pointless and empty? Has he derived any happiness or even satisfaction from it all? On the contrary, as time passes, the regrets become clearer for him, it seems: he has achieved fame, but two other members of the band are dead. He has left his working-class Glasgow roots behind – the other members are from rather wealthier backgrounds than his – and feels that he’s somehow sold out, betrayed himself, his family and friends. Looking back, he realises how much of all this he has hidden from himself all this time. Who is he, really?

He reaches a point where he contemplates ending it all, but is unable to bring himself to do it; then, through a series of happy coincidences which were to me perhaps the least convincing aspect of the novel, comes to realise what really matters, giving away his wealth and realising he can still live more modestly from his talents, and ends up almost happy ever after with his teenage sweetheart. Was this a cop-out of an ending? Perhaps, but it didn’t detract from the power of the novel for me. Briefly I did ask myself, is this a boys’ book? Probably.

Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia Emerging

October 21, 2021

         One of the problems with many utopian novels is that they are very good at showing us a much better, an ideal world even, but not so good at leading the reader there: how does one get from the horrendous present to the wonderful future? Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975) portrays a secessionist state on the West Coast of America, running along green/ecological principles; it’s set in the late 1990s, as I recall. And in the prequel here, he sets out to show how it all came about. This book has sat on my shelves for many years; I’ve read it before, but forgotten from whom I must have borrowed it and failed to return it, as it does not bear any of my library accession information…mea culpa.

Although there are characters who are well-developed and to whom the reader may warm, it does strike me first and foremost as a didactic novel: there’s an awful lot of 1980s ecological information spliced into the narrative at almost every turn, reflecting the concerns of all those years ago: dangers of nuclear power, chemical pollution, power of big oil and car corporations. The only thing missing from our present-day world is global heating and climate change. I found myself wondering, well, if the situation was that dire back then – and having lived through those years, yes it was – why didn’t anything actually get done about it all?

Callenbach is under no illusions about the opposition that there would be to any threat to the integrity of the United States. And in the back of my mind there’s the thought that, depending on what happens when that country tries to have its next presidential election, the threat to the unity of the nation may actually never been greater than it currently is…

So here’s a novel firmly rooted in its time and place – 1980s USA – and yet in some ways never more relevant than it is now. An idealist environmentalist party may perhaps have been a plausible prospect back then; forty much more cynical years later, it sadly feels much less so. Its political programme still makes eminent sense today, but the odds are far more strongly stacked against success.

Arguments for degrowth are carefully presented and evidenced, but depend on a large enough audience willing to pay attention for long enough to take in, process and accept those arguments, and this seems far less likely in the reduced attention-spans of the current social media era: divide et impera has never been more fully implemented. Seeing the car as the ultimate enemy was logical in the US of the 1980s, and it was possible to consider rejigging transportation, workplaces and living spaces to accommodate alternative ways of being and doing; now we are told to think that electric cars will be the solution to everything…

I’ve written elsewhere about my discovery of ecology over half a century ago, as a schoolboy, though reading Gordon Rattray Taylor’s 1970 polemic The Doomsday Book. Now there’s an awful lot more sound and fury about what we have done to the planet, but still precious little effective action, I fear. The culprit is capitalism, pure and simple: money still has to be made so that the rich can accumulate it; governments are in hock to business and we are told it’s up to us as individuals to save the planet. Quick, buy that bamboo toothbrush…

Callenbach’s two novels are an addition to dreams, prompts to think about the future, instances of the ‘what if?’ that good science fiction can do. But why hasn’t anything happened?

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