Sunday, 20 April 2014

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian



A few years ago, I was chatting with friends in a Lisbon esplanade. I wish I could say the esplanade belonged to a famous café with a long literary history, like A Brasileira, Martinho da Arcada or the Café Nicola, typical tourist haunts, but it was in fact a filthy tavern in a byway close to the National Theatre. The setting lacks class, but the following story does not deserve to take place in a café patronized by Fernando Pessoa and Eça de Queiroz. When a friend whom we had been expecting arrived, he carried with him a copy of No Country for Old Men, and excitedly informed us that this was going to be the Coen Brothers’ next movie. Of Cormac McCarthy, its author, I had never heard. But my friend raved about the novel and curiosity prompted me to buy it the next time I visited a bookstore. I found it to be rubbish. The movie, notwithstanding the usual technical excellence I expect from the Coens, wasn’t stellar either, for McCarthy’s ponderous voice managed to quell their characteristic absurdist worldview. Not deterred by this misstep, and this time influenced by the film adaptation of The Road, I went and bought that novel. It was rubbish too. For my part, I should have obeyed my instincts and given up Cormac McCarthy. But his fans surged in his defence. They explained it all to me, it had all just been a bit of rotten bad luck. Of all the novels I could have chosen, I had to go and read those two, his worst ones, they assured me. It made sense to me, they were his most recent novels, and we all know writers deteriorate with age. That’s my experience with Philip Roth, José Saramago and Milan Kundera. The second law of thermodynamics is unmerciful. Entropy, inherent vice, and all that. Ah, how much sense it did make! It had all been a mistake, and I felt foolish for I had caused it, failing to remember my natural sciences. Furthermore, they told me great things about him, that he was a serious writer, a writer who only wrote about “life and death,” all contemporary fiction seemed trite compared to the augustness of his books. Humbled, I asked for recommendations, I wanted to read Cormac McCarthy’s greatest novel where he wrote about life and death. And here the experts, like scientists at the turn of the 20th century taking sides on the wave-particle duality controversy, held two opposing views. Some believed that McCarthy’s greatness was constituted by discrete wave packets of suttrees. Others argued that his genius was best explained as blood meridian particles. Well, since I had no clue what a heck a suttree was, for I don’t hold a degree in quantum literature, I read Blood Meridian.

It’s rubbish, of course it’s rubbish. (1) To a smaller degree, if it’s any consolation, than the previous two. But instructive to show why I don’t care about this author. Cormac McCarthy is a writer of very limited talents, with a meagre repertoire of tricks. In fact he only has two: blood and eloquence. I suspect he applies one or another, or both, to all his novels. The plots, from what I can glean, always involve someone chasing someone to kill him. The author’s great virtue lies in subtly changing the number of people chasing and being chased. For instance, in No Country for Old Men there’s one Anton Chirguh chasing a guy to kill him. In Blood Meridian there are lots of Anton Chirguhs chasing lots of Injins and Mexicans and civilians to kill them. McCarthy depurates this formula in the apotheosis that is The Road, in which father and son are chased by everybody. If ambition means upping the ante, I guess McCarthy is a very, very ambitious writer. This is basically the plot of horror movies and The Terminator series. Then McCarthy tries to hide the blood with the eloquence, that is, there’s usually an erudite psychopath babbling, in that inimitable tone that philosophy de pacotille produces, about evil and chance and fate and power. When in a novel like The Road there’s no coin-flipping psychotic polymath, but only the blood, then you realize just how vacuous the author’s style is.

Eloquence requires command of an abundant vocabulary, a fault Cormac McCarthy can’t be accused of. Now I don’t sneer at a large vocabulary, being addicted to dictionaries myself, but I don’t think it’s anything impressive either, precisely because there are dictionaries and thesauruses that writers can consult. (2) I expect a writer to have a large vocabulary, it’s the least I expect of him. But even his vocabulary leaves something to be desired. One of his tricks is sneaking in as many Latinate words as possible, which gives his sentences an aura of mysterious density to his English-language readers. Unfortunately this trick, I’m afraid, will not impress a Latin-based language speaker. Lave, discalced, carafe, accrescence, and abscission don’t give me particular agony since they’re all similar to words I daily use: lavar, descalço, garrafa, acrescência, abcisão. Blood Meridian has the added fact of employing Spanish words, and you can imagine why that doesn’t pose a particular challenge for me either. So I must scratch vast vocabulary from the list of things to praise McCarthy for.

So what else? The characters? But there aren’t characters to speak of. They’re mostly intangible ciphers. McCarthy doesn’t like interiority, or common psychology, anything that gets inside his characters, or even things like back-story. He’s never interested in the past, only the future, his writing is pure movement, always going forward. Basically he writes as if his novels were screenplays (and No Country for Old Men is a novel converted from a film script), describing only things that can be captured by a lens: a sunset, a cavalcade, a thumb on a trigger, a wound, etc. As a principle, there’s nothing wrong with this. Lots of writers I admire don’t focus on the interior either, José Saramago and Leonardo Sciascia just to name two examples. And yet their characters do come across as far more tangible, more complete I guess. I agree with William H. Gass that you can keep adding more traits to a character and he’ll never become more real for that. I can even do without characters, or I wouldn’t be a Borges lover. But if characters must exist, I prefer Anna Karenina, baroque in her motives and psychology, to the aridness of the kid.

For reasons that aren’t incomprehensible to me, McCarthy is often compared to Herman Melville, and his judge Holden to Captain Ahab. It could not be otherwise. They’re both translucent phantoms with no substance save a few discursive moments – the eloquence – where they shine by the grace of a language full of thunder. Moby Dick, to my mind, is an inconstant novel with moments of genius; once I claimed that Ahab’s final speech was the best speech not written by Shakespeare, and I stand by that. In fact I’ll transcribe it verbatim because this post is in want of actual good prose, if we wait for McCarthy to provide it we’ll be he all eternity:

"Starbuck, of late I've felt strangely moved to thee; ever since that hour we both saw—thou know'st what, in one another's eyes. But in this matter of the whale, be the front of thy face to me as the palm of this hand—a lipless, unfeatured blank. Ahab is for ever Ahab, man. This whole act's immutably decreed. 'Twas rehearsed by thee and me a billion years before this ocean rolled. Fool! I am the Fates' lieutenant; I act under orders. Look thou, underling! that thou obeyest mine.—Stand round me, men. Ye see an old man cut down to the stump; leaning on a shivered lance; propped up on a lonely foot. 'Tis Ahab—his body's part; but Ahab's soul's a centipede, that moves upon a hundred legs. I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale; and I may look so. But ere I break, yell hear me crack; and till ye hear that, know that Ahab's hawser tows his purpose yet. Believe ye, men, in the things called omens? Then laugh aloud, and cry encore! For ere they drown, drowning things will twice rise to the surface; then rise again, to sink for evermore. So with Moby Dick—two days he's floated—tomorrow will be the third. Aye, men, he'll rise once more,—but only to spout his last! D'ye feel brave men, brave?"

Judge Holden also commands a silvery tongue. He speaks in parables and symbols, insinuating more than signifying, in that opaque style that will have literary critics eating from his hand for decades to come. The climax of all his yapping is the discourse on War, with a capital W because that’s the kind of writer McCarthy is:

This is the nature of war, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, war is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

To go back to the plot, since we’re comparing both novels, it’s fair to say that they’re also similar in that nothing happens of importance for most of their pages, until suddenly in the last fifty pages everything rushes towards a fizzling conclusion. The pursuit of Moby Dick quickly takes a backseat to Ishmael’s cetacean trivia, whereas the Glanton gang promenades harmlessly through a lovely landscape where they commit amazing acts of cartoonish violence without law opposing them, even though the area is crawling with soldiers, until something is conjured out of nowhere to put an end to their picnic by the mesas. And then a few pages later the kid and judge Holden meet again. Incidentally, the gang has the habit of ruining the populations they work for; the idea of heroes becoming an unwanted occupational force was explored much better by J.M. Coetzee in Waiting for the Barbarians. I wouldn’t want my readers to go away empty-handed without a sound recommendation. Moby Dick had something that Blood Meridian lacked, an interesting character like Ishmael. Anyone who’s read the great whale novel knows Ahab is not the protagonist, it’s Ishmael, that wonderful, garrulous, obsessive narrator. Ahab and his grudge are just the price we have to pay for Ishmael’s company. Unfortunately McCarthy wants me to pay thrice, once for the bland kid, once for the amorphous gang he wanders into, and finally for judge Holden, an apparition whose symbolism as a supernatural being, possibly the Devil or the personification of War, is so obvious it was fated to be considered profound by academe, for whom it was tailor-made.

Plot, vocabulary, characters. What next? Ah yes, the prose is awful. Readers claim that McCarthy writes biblical prose. I personally don’t know what they think that means, but I have a very strong belief that it means syntactically plain prose, because that is the nature of ancient languages. His biblical prose is this:

By full dark the blackened ribracks leaned steaming at the fires and there was a jousting over the coals with shaven sticks whereon were skewered gobs of meat and a clank of canteens and endless raillery. And sleep that night on the cold plains of a foreign land, forty-six men wrapped in their blankets under the selfsame stars, the prairie wolves so like in their yammering, yet all about so change and strange.

The author’s secret is that he uses the conjunction and all the time, which as Guy Deutscher explains in Through the Language Glass, is how texts in ancient languages used to be written, without recourse to subordinate clauses. It’s also why “the narrative style of ancient languages such as Hittite, Akkadian, or biblical Hebrew often seems soporifically repetitive.” That’s because they lacked the “syntactic technology” to create subordinate clauses that added complexity to their sentences. As Deutscher argues, ancient languages developed this capacity when their societies started “growing in complexity” and had to expand the uses of language for administrative, legal and judicial purposes. I’m sure there is a lot to admire about the way illiterate shepherds wrote in the Levant region eons ago, but I do like my syntax a bit more intricate. Reading McCarthy’s sentences is like reading an English textbook for foreign students, full of simple telegraphic, declarative sentences that use the SVO structure, before you’re experienced enough to graduate to, I don’t know, Philip Roth. It’s a style, of course, even a popular one. If mediocrities like Hemingway and Raymond Carver got away with it, why shouldn’t McCarthy do so? But I prefer writers who’ve updated their syntactic software, like Vladimir Nabokov and Saramago.

I guess I’m obliged to speak about the violence now. I’m a very insensitive person so children hanging from trees and spilled brains on the prairie don’t leave me shrivelled in a corner, catatonic. I remember laughing at the baby on the spit in The Road, it was such a ludicrous, telling moment, McCarthy admitting he knew no other means to hold a reader’s attention than by throwing snuff movie images at him. If only they arrived to the sound of Riz Ortolani’s score…

What does this novel intend to tell me? That the world is vile and dark and ugly and unredeemable? But I already know that, I’ve read Kaputt and The Skin, I’ve read Joseph Conrad, I’ve read Blidness. Ten novels to say what Jorge de Sena condensed in a single sentence? “I’ve convinced myself that mankind is incurably vile, with a few pretty hours once in a while, and we can’t demand from it more than it can give us.” That’s the power of concision. I guess that’s why he’s a poet and McCarthy a mere novelist. Cormac McCarthy published Blood Meridian in 1985. From what I hear, it was a bad time: Reaganism, Thatcherism, the Cold War, impending nuclear extermination. Perhaps he wrote this novel to teach his fellow countrymen something about the Real World®. Although I’ve never met an American, I’m told they’re these affable but gullible and innocent little creatures who think the world is a bubbly place, like the Hobbits, unaware of all the evil orcs at Mount Doom. As didactic fiction, I have no doubts Blood Meridian is an invaluable instrument. Still, thank God for mature writers like Gabriel García Márquez, who published Love in the Time of Cholera around the same time. With its optimistic sentimentality and promising happy ending in the face of a world going to hell, I dare say he was far braver and more radical, for going against the grain, than this predictable pamphleteer of formless doom.

I could go on, but why bother? More than his one-dimensional characters, his repetitive plots, his simplistic prose, flaws I can tolerate in many writers I admire, what repels me is the authoritarian demeamour his writing conveys. I think a long time ago the world created two types of readers. There were those conceived high in Aristophanes’ clouds. And down below, by the ground, next to dirt and the blood, there were those conceived during the long siege of Troy. From time to time I can admire the blood-splattered walls and the looting, but ultimately my view of the world and existence is just too absurdist to take seriously the gloomy solemnity of an agelaste like McCarthy. If the Catholic Church ever needs a third part for the Bible, McCarthy could ghost-write it. He has the appropriate tone, that thundering tone of someone hurling down timeless truths at the poor mortals, so full of bilious certainty, incapable of ever considering that he masters only a provincial truth. But what else to expect from a man who doesn’t understand Henry James and writers who don’t write about “life and death?” I bet it’s never even occurred to him that there’s nothing vaguer than talking about these extremities. Life is everything that composes it so I fail to see how any writer can not write about something he’s inextricably part of. As for death, it’s sad that the man who’s so fond of it, who one would presume has spent considerable time meditating about it, really thinks he writes about it. No one can know death, only an approximation of it. At best a writer can write about dying, the fear of death or the mourning of a dead person, but actual death, or Death, as I’m sure he’d prefer it, what is that thing other than a fugitive abstraction? This subtle difference is why he can only write about Anton Chirguhs killing people; it’s a subtle but immense difference, it’s the difference between The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis and this silly little novel.

16/07/2016:
1 Did I actually write this?
2 Who was the imbecile writing this shit?

20 comments:

  1. Scientific metaphors are treacherous if not handled with care, aren't they?

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    1. Still the circumstances demanded one. I know McCarthy prefers scientists to writers, so that was my attempt at a tribute.

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  2. Cormac's writing, like Hemingway's (in The Old Man and the Sea), is a parody of itself. The Road and the last novel in The Border Trilogy pretty much "diluted" the "relevance" of his "project" and made me reassess his "vision". (Can't help but put quotes in those words.) There's this recent sucky movie where he wrote the screenplay and it nailed the coffin.

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    1. Ah yes, the last novel of the trilogy. The experts also warned me against that. Three bad novels in a row, then, according to those who think he's a great writer...

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  3. I'm sorry that you haven't enjoyed any of McCarthy's works, especially this one, which is one of my top three novels. I found it magic when Glaton's posse ran out of gunpowder, while being chased by the headens and found the Judge sitting on a boulder and then he proceeded to gather the elements and manufacture it - my guess is that the Judge had been running with the injins before that. Also the Glanton's gang and the Judge are real characters as well as some of the exploits written in this book. And sheriff Ed Tom Bell from No country for Old Men is a wonderful exception to the rule of one-dimensional characters. As always it is a pleasure to read and ponder on your words.

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    1. Very well, it's based on real events, of what significance is that? Hoffmann's novel about a cat who writes his autobiography isn't. Where do we go from here?

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    2. Where do we go from here? I'd say another author, another book but you've already done that (:

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    3. There now, I promise I'll read Suttree and then I'll be done with him.

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  4. Clearly you possess a vastly superior intellect than one of the world's greatest writers. How brave of you to tear apart McCarthy and Melville in such a condescending and transparently ego-stroking manner. We're all very impressed.

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    1. Well, obviously you're not impressed, in spite of my best efforts.

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    2. Miguel, I like how "Unknown" (clearly a pseudonym for the more wildly popular "Anonymous") isn't man/woman enough to use his/her real name but is able to get all riled up about a lone anti-Cormac McCarthy review without saying one single word about why McCarthy is supposedly so great. What a brilliant defense of McCarthy's vaunted "vastly superior intellect"! How totally brave of Unknown to hide behind a keyboard, use sarcasm and the royal we to attack you for being "condescending and transparently ego-stroking" (I guess ego-stroking of the furtive or secretive varieties would have been OK) without even saying why you're wrong to hold your clearly-explained position.

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    3. Don't fret about him, Richard. I'd rather know what you think of my obviously unpopular position on McCarthy.

      And when are you updating your blog?

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    4. Miguel, I was holding off on responding to specifics in your post because I'm actually hoping to get to the novel myself sometime within the next month (famous last words, of course). I loved Moby Dick, though, and I enjoyed the language in the first 10-20 pages of Blood Meridian when I dipped into it a while back. For me, the main question will likely be does the "eloquence" of McCarthy offset his infamously over the top aesthetic in this novel? P.S. Thanks for asking about the blog. I haven't felt like writing much this month, but I only have one completed novel to write about anyway (Alfredo Bryce Echenique's Un mundo para Julius, a very satisfying read which I might say something about soon...or not!). Cheers!

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    5. Well, I'll look forward to your thoughts about Blood Meridian. And how is Nadas doing?

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  5. Miguel - As someone who has also found this writer not to my taste, I appreciate your articulation of some of the reasons one might find him objectionable. Some I shared, and others I'm now just seeing thanks to your post. I suspected that in taking on one of the great sacred beasts of contemporary American literature you might rile up a few of his defenders, who in my experience often express their passion for him with a peculiar violence. But then again, violence is McCarthy's thing.

    I have not read Blood Meridian and thus cannot comment on it (I should be as conscientious as you and actually read the book), but I have read all three books of the Border Trilogy and Suttree, a book that plainly shows, as though in real time, McCarthy's commitment to enlarging his vocabulary. I don't deny that McCarthy has talent - at least he cares enough about words to irrigate his work with them and keep them in circulation. But I just have a constitutional aversion to his thematic vision of the violent world, which seems typically represented by a bloody sun setting over the doomed North American west. Ponderous - that may be a good way to put it - and I think you hit on something insightful in your last paragraph: McCarthy's fixation on violence to the exclusion of so much else in the world, and as though violence is relentless and inherent, and its gravitational pull inescapable. You don't find that grim cynicism in a book as bloody and violent as Orlando furioso, that's for sure.

    Perhaps this is unfair, but compare the Border Trilogy to another work about the U.S./Mexico border and about violence there - 2666 - and the meanness of McCarthy's vision (I mean that in the word's old sense of thinness, meagerness) becomes apparent. I just don't understand where it's directed. For all of the myriad diversions in 2666, Bolaño aims squarely at a tangible and specific horror in the real world - the femicide in Juarez. McCarthy's vision, on the other hand, seems intellectualized, aimed vaguely at some more abstract phenomenon of violence. Whatever he may be saying doesn't take root or stick with me the way Bolaño does, or Vassily Grossman does, or even Hemingway can. I come away from McCarthy not outraged, but rather reactionary - "people are violent, Americans are violent, the world is violent, the setting sun is a bolus of blood in the west" - and I'm already looking to see what's next on the to-be-read pile.

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    1. Scott, thanks for your lengthy reply.

      Some I shared, and others I'm now just seeing thanks to your post.

      That's high praise indeed. What in particular?

      I suspected that in taking on one of the great sacred beasts of contemporary American literature you might rile up a few of his defenders, who in my experience often express their passion for him with a peculiar violence.

      See, I really hoped his defenders would counteract with excellent arguments in his favour, since I don't think he's indefensible. I haven't seen much violence so far, it's the silence that disappoints me the most. If someone wrote like this about Borges or Saramago, I'd be on blog piling up reasons why they're great!

      McCarthy's fixation on violence to the exclusion of so much else in the world, and as though violence is relentless and inherent, and its gravitational pull inescapable. You don't find that grim cynicism in a book as bloody and violent as Orlando furioso, that's for sure.

      I don't believe his violence. It sounds like the violence of someone who was lucky enough never to experience any himself. Compare his novels with the work of people who have known genuine horrors like Curzio Malaparte, Primo Levi, Ernst Jünger, it's like a child's version of horror...

      2666, now there's a great counterpoint to McCarthy's vision. That violence is grounded to me, I understand it, it's concrete. Like you say, McCarthy just likes violence in the abstract, and as philosophy proves, too much abstraction just leads to a lot of ineffable nonsense.

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    2. Thanks, Miguel. Having only read the four books (and three of them a trilogy) I hadn't seen the pattern of the chase to the kill with varying populations. And I hadn't noticed the use of "and" and the lack of subordinate clauses, but now that you mention it, this is style of Njal's Saga, the one work I'd been thinking about in relation to McCarthy's view of violence which has a similar kind of grim resignation concerning its inevitability. But at least in that 1,000 year old work, the plot concerns the recurring failures in attempting to establish a rudimentary legal system that could curtail that violence. There's a direction in that old work, and it's actually moving to see that struggle, especially considering how far such a legal system has come since the time of the sagas. But I didn't get that sense of a clear direction in McCarthy, of his recitations of violence being connected to anything tangible.

      The other element of the prose I don't like in McCarthy is its "craftiness," as is evident in the quotations you provide above. I suspect many who admire him do so for his "craft." I've never understood this idea that craft somehow makes for great art. I mean, look at macramé, which should have disabused people of this notion years ago.

      But I concede that perhaps I'm missing something, and I too would like to see McCarthy strongly defended by his admirers. I just don't have a taste for his writing.

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    3. Like I wrote to toutjour, I'm still giving Suttree a chance. I do feel like I'm missing something, because all this acclaim is baffling to me, and that novel seems different enough to merit a try. But after that, it's over.

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  6. 'it's like a child's version of horror...'

    You hit the nail on its head. His violence is completely abstract and pretentious. If you try to compare McCarthy's violence, for example, to Tadeusz Borowski's real horrors of the Second World War you quickly find out that all his writing is false, affected and simulated. This is a kind of literature written in a comfortable armchair and cozy surroundings for a self-satisfied and relatively rich group of readers who yearn for literary tricks. I admit that a few years ago I also fell a victim to some of my friends' overenthusiastic reviews of Cormac McCarthy's books and read a few of his books. I think that your complaints and charges are fully justified. This writing is rubbish. But it just happens that there will always be a group of people who under the influence of clever advertising and the media have become strong supporters of kitsch. Blood, violence and biblical speeches about the end of the world are usually very popular among certain book consumers.

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    1. Jack, thanks for replying.

      Yes, well, McCarthy's claims to know darkness will pale in the face of a man with first-hand account of the Holocaust. In my notes I wrestled with this fact: can a man who's lived an otherwise sheltered life like McCarthy's have a right to be so dark and pessimistic? Can a man such as that really know anything about genuine darkness and evil and violence and horror? I'm on the fence, because I don't want to debase the value of imagination.

      At the same time, I do think it's curious that people who've lived through tremendous ordeals - war, purges, dictatorships - are often quite hopeful. A man like Mikhail Bulgakov, who could have been killed by Stalin, had no right to write something as hilarious like The Master and Margarita. Nor Malaparte, who walked through Jewish ghettos dominated by Nazis, should have written a masterpiece of dark irony like Kaputt. But they did. So I have a hard time taking McCarthy's pessimism seriously. Like you say, he writes for other people who haven't wrestled with darkness either, so they can just wax poetics about it from a safe distance.

      I guess my point is, has he earned a right to be this apocalyptic and hopeless? To me, not really.

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