The ultra-experimental, madly prolific Argentine novelist César Aira doesn’t believe in explanations. Not surprisingly, his third novel translated to English, How I Became a Nun, puzzled some U.S. reviewers. The book begins with a hilarious episode in which a child is disgusted by a first taste of strawberry ice cream. In the span of its ensuing 120-odd pages, the novel describes a 6-year-old child’s anxieties, delusions, metaphysical discoveries and rites of passage, including a first friendship.
Aira’s language is perfectly controlled and crystalline throughout, but his first-person account resolutely avoids interpretations. The child’s swirling mental landscape of intuitions, confusions, and fears is preserved intact. One U.S. reviewer wrote: “Too smart but also too childish . . .” Another echoed: “Aira’s prose seems hesitant, his imaginative flights clipped by the 6-year-old mind he is trying to inhabit. As a result, these perplexing episodes don’t quite add up to a credible story.”
These critics praised the book’s dark humor, its elegant prose, its inventive subversion of reality, but they asked—what is this all about? They wanted a justification, an explanation or contextualization that might make the novel, as the second critic put it, “a credible story.”
But that is exactly what Aira’s brief but extravagant books tend to avoid delivering. In fact, Aira has staked out a very cogent and immensely influential (in Latin America) artistic position that basically says “storytelling at its finest avoids explanations, information, interpretation, etc.” In a series of 1988 lectures delivered at the University of Buenos Aires, Aira was clear on this point: “The real story, which we have grown unaccustomed to, is chemically free of explanation. . . . The story is always about something unexplainable. The art of narration declines as explanations are added.”
Explanation and information, Aira says, are the currencies of our communicational era, our culture of information-saturated media and scientific analysis. We have become so conditioned by this reality that as readers many of us demand “credible” stories, with explanations, linear causality, and perfectly seamless narrative structures.
Aira has another idea of what a story is, and How I Became a Nun is a paradigmatic example of his simultaneously archaic and avant-garde ideas. Like the storyteller of prehistory, Aira is concerned not so much with verisimilitude or realism as he is with that bewitching kernel of mystery that is at the heart of a narrative. Aira’s novels are very much like folk tales in that they rely on paradox, disjointedness, and ruptures to carry the story forward. His works are fashioned not from sweeping modern visions but from a civilization’s odds and ends, shreds of meaning, the clutter of a reader’s memory and imagination. And like avant-garde visual and literary artists of the early 20th-century (especially the surrealists), Aira is obsessed with procedure and process, the actions at the mysterious origins of art. Also like the avant-gardists, Aira is interested in disrupting the normal workings of the cultural market in which his products are consumed, as his hero Marcel Duchamp did so famously with his ready-mades during the 1910s in Paris. In more than one interview, Aira has said he thinks of himself not so much as an author of novels, but as an artist who happens to write books.
How I Became a Nun is a key book Aira wrote at mid-career, encapsulating many of his ideas on literature and art. On the surface, the novel is the story of a child’s sixth year of life, a year plagued by family misfortunes and everyday mishaps. This is how the novel begins: “My story, the story of ‘how I became a nun,’ began very early in my life; I had just celebrated my sixth birthday.” Here, Aira already is up to his tricks. In this memorable and deceptively simple first sentence the repetition of the novel’s title (between quotation marks) should be taken as a signal this won’t be a story of how the narrator became a nun at all. In fact, How I Became a Nun is the story of César Aira’s beginnings as a writer.
Aira’s real biography is far more linear and orderly, on the surface, than the convoluted worlds of his fictions.
Born in 1949 in Coronel Pringles, a town on the southern edge of the Argentine Pampas, Aira left his bucolic hometown for good in 1967, settling in the big city—Buenos Aires. For many years he earned his living as a translator of French and English books, indiscriminately translating bestsellers, technical books, and literary fiction. At the same time, he built his literary career, particularly from the late 1980s onward, eventually making a name for himself as a literary innovator, an inexhaustible fount of fictions and ideas about fiction. Today, 40 years after his arrival in Buenos Aires, Aira, the kid from Pringles, is arguably the dominant presence in the Buenos Aires literary world.
But Aira’s rise is a relatively recent phenomenon. Through the 1990s, Aira—whose novels have always been tinged with humor and irreverence—played court jester while other more academic and self-consciously serious writers received accolades, awards, and critical attention. In that decade Juan José Saer and Ricardo Piglia (whose Artificial Respiration is widely taught in U.S. universities) reigned as the most influential Argentine men of letters. But roughly from 2000 onwards, Aira’s star began to ascend. His strange, unclassifiable fictions (63 titles to date) have their share of detractors in Argentina and across the Spanish-language world, but in my opinion no other living Argentine writer exercises as much influence. Aira’s presence is everywhere in the country’s literary conversations, and whether he is being labeled a charlatan or hailed as a master his presence is always generating passionate and useful debate.
Certainly, no writer in Aira’s generation has shown an equal capacity to forge his own myth as a writer of genius. Thanks in part to Aira’s conscious image-making in interviews and essays, he’s seen as a kind of mad creator who refuses to edit his manuscripts, publishes compulsively, and ups the bet on his own penchant for absurdity with each new novel. And Aira has not only succeeded in building a larger-than-life image for himself, leading some to accuse him of being an inveterate self-marketer. As an idiosyncratic editor and critic Aira also has worked doggedly to subvert the entire Argentine and Latin American literary canon, toppling reputations and erecting monuments to new literary heroes. His Dictionary of Latin American Authors (published in 2001 in Argentina) is a mammoth exercise in this sense.
But Aira is not an armchair literary critic. He practices what he preaches. Many of his novels are written around a premise traceable to one of his literary theories, such as La costurera y el viento (1994) (The Seamstress and the Wind). As Argentine critic Sandra Contreras points out, it is a novel written around Aira’s idea that forgetfulness is essential to storytelling, since memory (a form of explanation) acts like a drag on the forward momentum of a tale. This short novel, which in Argentina was published together with How I Became a Nun, includes a memorable episode in which a character, lost and stranded in an empty Patagonian landscape, improvises a vehicle out of a giant, prehistoric armadillo shell.
The results of Aira’s literary experiments are always funny, vivid, and disconcertingly heterogeneous. His books are mixed bags, in which a frivolous sentence or exaggeratedly grotesque episode will be followed by a sentence or paragraph of ingenuity and bottomless depth.
In this, How I Became a Nun is the most representative of Aira’s books to appear in English. Most of Aira’s books are concocted similarly: a kaleidoscopic swirling of absurdities, flashes of humor, incursions into grotesque expressionism. The two prior translations into English, The Hare (among Aira’s longest books with 223 pages in Spanish) and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, are novels that might be described as atypical when considering the whole of Aira’s production. Both are tales of the Pampas, a rural setting Aira markedly favored only early in his career.
And in tone and structure both The Hare and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter are among the most conventional of Aira’s books. In fact, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter has been described by Sandra Contreras as completely atypical, a novel so perfect and elegant it gleams with its own weird light when seen alongside the rest of Aira’s books. I agree with this assessment, at least in reference to the nine Aira novels I’ve read. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter might be used as “Exhibit A” when disputing some critics’ accusations that Aira is simply a poor writer, an incorrigible literary prankster who disrespects readers by slathering absurdities onto a handful of pages and publishing them as a novel. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter proves Aira can write a quite orthodox, accomplished literary novella.1
In my opinion, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is one of the great works of world literature from the last 25 years of the last century, as good if not better than W.G. Sebald or Roberto Bolaño. But to really know César Aira as Argentines know him—as a writer who constantly risks making a fool of himself in his search for the essence of literature—one needs to read How I Became a Nun.
Aira’s novels tend to begin straightforwardly, immediately immersing the reader in the climate of the story. These beginnings are done with a natural self-confidence, the entrancing self-possession of the best oral storytellers. Aira understands that to begin a story, no fancy words or purple prose are necessary. Nor are complex situations meant to be presented as such at first. The job at hand is to begin. The story must be allowed to unfold first, before it can be refolded by the author into something strange, with infinite folds—an origami monster.
How I Became a Nun’s first sentence (“My story, the story of ‘how I became a nun’ . . . “), is a typical Aira opening: unadorned and efficient. A comparison might be made to the first sentence of Aira’s 2004 novel Yo era una chica moderna (I Was a Modern Girl). That novel begins: “Yo era una chica moderna, que salía mucho.” (“I was a modern girl who went out a lot.”) A span of 11 years separates the two novels (How I Became a Nun was first published in Argentina in 1993), but the technique is identical: begin simply.
The invocation of a novel’s title in the first sentence is another old storytelling trick. It is nothing more than a special case of repetition as literary device. Repeating the title of the story in its first sentence serves to lend the titular phrase a special significance—for the remainder of the story it serves as a kind of emblem. The whole story unrolls under the influence of these phrases: “I was a modern girl . . . ” or “How I became a nun . . .” Every word in the book becomes ancillary to the phrase, which serves like a kind of skeleton key.
And these phrases also underscore something else: paradox, a kind of whimsical irony, humor. César Aira is obviously a man, and hence someone ostensibly disqualified, because of his sex, from ever wearing the nun’s habit or being a “modern girl.” (Another of his novels, which might be called the third installment in this trilogy, is titled Yo era una niña de siete años (2005), or I Was a Seven-Year-Old Girl.) The incongruity and perhaps even silliness of a mature male writer choosing these titles and the subject matter implied by them generates an aura of absurdity from the very start.
Faint at first, this absurdity quickly builds—velocity is one of Aira’s hallmarks—and soon engulfs the whole novel.
So, the book begins: the narrator, female at first, promises to tell a story of a metamorphosis, “how I became a nun.” The novel starts by narrating the family’s migration from Coronel Pringles, Aira’s real-life hometown, to the city. In this case the city is not Buenos Aires, but Argentina’s third-largest metropolis, Rosario.
Apparently, the girl who begins the story has not yet been introduced to ice cream, and upon arriving in the big city her father takes her to experience this urban treat. As it turns out, her palate rejects strawberry ice cream as the most disgusting, gut-wrenching thing she has ever tasted. Her father is confused and angry, and as he tries to persuade his daughter to like the ice cream, the episode is infused with exponentially increasing doses of hilarity. Aira allows tension and paradox to build until it is almost unbearable. When the girl’s father, in a rage, murders the ice cream vendor by plunging his face into the vat of tainted ice cream, the reader understands a point of no return has been reached. The novel can only build in weirdness if it is to continue.
And so it does. The rabbit-hole yawns open, and for the remainder of the novel the reader must slip and slide through the complex labyrinth of a 6-year-old’s imagination.
As I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, U.S. reviewers had trouble with this aspect of the novel. The child’s point of view seemed to them a limitation. It didn’t always convince and it put blinders on the novel’s scope, transforming it into a series of episodes that didn’t quite add up.
A careful read of How I Became a Nun, though, reveals the novel is not so much about a 6-year-old’s mind as it is about the development of a writer’s mind, the brain of a storyteller when it is a soft thing still, hitting upon the tricks of the trade by intuition, helped along by the confounding experiences of life. A single detail makes this “portrait of the artist” interpretation obvious: the child protagonist, of indeterminate sex (alternately referred to as a he and a she), is named César Aira.
But there are other, subtler autobiographical signposts, which would be obvious to some Argentine readers. One is the episode in which the protagonist befriends a boy named Arturo Carrera. This is the name in real life of a contemporary poet, one of Argentina’s most anthologized and critically celebrated, who is also from Coronel Pringles and is Aira’s close friend.
And, finally, the emphasis on the color pink (of the strawberry ice cream) is almost certainly an allusion to Aira’s early story El vestido rosa (1984), or The Pink Dress. In the story, a baby’s pink dress traverses a good part of the 19th-century Pampas as accidental circumstances place it in the possession of first one character and then another. The story is a good summation of Aira’s extraordinary talent, full of unforgettable descriptions and suggestive speculations on Argentine history, landscape, and literary classics. It is also a bit too much, the accumulation of erudition and beautiful writing is exhausting; and uncharacteristically, at least when considering Aira’s later work, the story dips into sentimentalism and nostalgia (the object around which the action spins, a baby’s pink dress, loaded with sappy connotations, is symptomatic of this). The Pink Dress is a novel of a writer who still had not learned to calibrate his talent and censor self-indulgent writing.
My theory is that the tainted, lethal strawberry ice cream of How I Became a Nun is a metaphor for the danger that besets every writer: the temptation to indulge in nostalgia, saccharine sentimentalism, easy romanticism. The flip-side of this temptation, of course, is that the writer can’t escape his human attachments that are at the root of nostalgia and sentiment. Aira makes an allusion to this in one of the more suggestive passages of How I Became a Nun, in which he alludes to the narrator’s unrecoverable past in Coronel Pringles:
But the spaces of Pringles were not a memory. They were a desire, a kind of happiness, which could be anywhere: all I had to do was open my eyes and extend my hand. That space, that happiness, had a color: pink. The pink of the skies at dusk, the giant, distant, transparent pink that represented my life with its absurd gesture of simply appearing. I was giant, distant, transparent and I represented the sky with the absurd gesture of living. My life was my painting. To live was to color myself, with the pink of the suspended light, unexplainable.
In this passage we have many of the keys to Aira’s literature: life as one big absurdity, the emphasis on the unexplainable, the vacuity of memory. The passage also might be read as a retroactive statement on the involuntary sentimentalism of his early fictions, perhaps colored with the pink of his yearning for the “spaces of Pringles . . . that space, that happiness.”
How I Became a Nun is a unique autobiographical novel because, save for this passage, it purposefully skirts around any sort of nostalgia. If anything, the book’s tone sometimes comes near to melodrama, a kind of noir kitsch, as it tells the story of a mother and daughter (or son) living in the shadow of a father’s violent crime. Melodrama, though it might seem related, is in reality nothing like nostalgia—melodrama is about exasperation with the present, not a yearning for the past. In any case, Aira’s prose, in the end, is too clear-eyed, quick, and inflected with sharp humor to get lost in melodramatic puddles.
Every time the action threatens to reach a plateau of routine or narrative equilibrium, Aira introduces a destabilizing element. Other authors use plot surprises to create rising action (the soap opera-patented device of revealing unexpected blood ties, for example). But Aira does something different. In each of his novels, events and narration typically swirl into denser and denser configurations that challenge the postulates of verisimilitude, reason, or good taste—or all three. Like the climate before a storm, when barometric pressure drops and the air seems to be buzzing with a desire for relief, Aira’s novels arrive at a point at which the reader is pleading for resolution. How is all of this going to come together?
It should be said that, in the opinion of some critics, Aira’s books usually don’t come together at all. This opinion is not just held by the occasional reviewer abroad who has no context in which to place Aira’s books; within Argentina itself there are influential writers and critics who believe Aira is overrated and a malign influence on younger Latin American writers who look up to him.
Aira’s books, at times, can be slightly ridiculous or even possibly quite stupid. There are episodes in his fictions which push readers, myself included, to shake the book and say, come on . . . One such episode is in Yo era una chica moderna, when the two female protagonists murder another woman and tear a mutant fetus from her womb. From that point forward this homunculus, nicknamed “El Gauchito,” is their mascot or pet. Hilarious? Sick? Just plain silly?
It is a commonplace in Argentine literary circles to talk of Aira’s unevenness in terms of quality, his lapses into sketchy characterizations or seemingly gratuitous violations of realism. In a single review of an Aira book, the average book critic will often seize on some specific aspect of the novel in order to declare it tiresome, nonsensical, or unnecessary, and then only a few sentences later make a grandiose claim about Aira’s literary mastery and his unparalleled originality and preternatural inventiveness. And perhaps it is around this last word that some sort of critical consensus has been reached, because more than a novelist or writer per se an inventor is what Aira is, an inventor of strange literary (artistic) artifacts.
Aira’s novels are curiously versatile constructions—they typically can be interpreted in several ways: as a traditional novel (which is how U.S. book reviewers tried to understand How I Became a Nun), as absurd fables, allegories, or as treatises on writing as an art form (in Argentina, How I Became a Nun was interpreted as an autobiographical allegory and a cryptic manual on the art of writing). This versatility is possible only because at the heart of each Aira novel there is a marvelously ingenious storytelling device—a premise, central anecdote, or plot mechanism—which Aira exploits to the nth potential. He has a vertigo-inducing capacity to suggest a cornucopia of stories even while telling just one.
In this, Aira’s stories might again be usefully compared to folk tales. They have the same compressed nature, the same power to suggest a universe of meaning despite being short texts. Each of Aira’s miniature novels include a multiplicity of fictions. Aira himself has referred to the work of literature as analogous to the creation of Russian dolls, those bulbous wooden ones that fit one inside of the other until one arrives at the final miniature doll, its features nearly illegible. The final doll, of course, is always a disappointment: the Russian dolls game is in reality a metaphor (another popular one is “peeling the onion”) for humankind’s congenital incapacity to get to the center of things. Aira’s fictions, like the Russian dolls, are about folding worlds into worlds to the point of absurdity. In doing so they simulate a kind of search for the essence of story, of anecdote—of the tale in its purest essence.
Aira’s literary universe brings to mind an open alchemical laboratory in which the guts of storytelling are prodded, weighed, and examined. It is a lab in which Aira, or Dr. Aira (as he once called himself in another novel) is madly searching for the Philosopher’s Stone. Or we might call it the Storyteller’s Stone, the key which might allow him to effortlessly produce an endless stream of literature spun from the drab material of ordinary life. Of course, Aira, like the medieval alchemists, suspects his attempt is doomed to failure from the start, but that doesn’t keep him from trying. He is incorrigible: he has the blind optimism of a dreamer.
According to Aira, he never edits his own work, nor does he plan ahead of time how his novels will end, or even what twists and turns they will take in the next writing session. He is loyal to his idea that making art is above all a question of procedure. The artist’s role, Aira says, is to invent procedures (experiments) by which art can be made. Whether he executes these or not is secondary; Aira’s business is the plan, not necessarily the result. Why is procedure all-important? Because it is relevant beyond the individual creator. Anyone can use it.
Aira’s procedure, which he has elucidated in essays and interviews, is what he calls el continuo, or la huida hacia adelante. These concepts might be translated into English as “the continuum,” and a “constant flight forward.” Editing is an abhorrent idea in the context of Aira’s continuum. To edit oneself would be to retrace one’s steps, go backwards, when the idea is to always move forward. To judge yesterday’s writing session, to censor a lapse into the absurd or the irrational, to revive a character your work-in-progress sent tumbling over a cliff—all of these actions go against Aira’s procedure. Instead, the system prioritizes an ethic of creative self-affirmation and, I would say, optimism. To labor to justify previous work with more strange creations that in turn establish the need for ever more artistic high-wire acts in the future—this is the continuum, the high-wire act the artist must perform when he refuses to submit to any rule that is not his autonomously chosen procedure. It is an act performed with deep abysses yawning to each side of him—conformity, market pressures, conventionality, self-repression of all kinds . . . In other words, Aira’s literary career, embodied in each of his 63 novels, is a reckless pursuit of artistic freedom.
Aira says that when he sits down to write his daily page or two, he writes pretty much whatever comes into his head, with no strictures except that of continuing the previous day’s work. (The spontaneous feel of his stories would seem to back up this claim, but I’ve always asked, can anyone write as well as Aira does while simply letting the pen ramble?)
True, his books are very short. Aira says in interviews that he’s often tried to make his novels longer, but they seem to come to a natural rest at around the 100-page mark. Technically, much of what Aira has written would have to be classified in the novella category, but it’s hard to classify Aira’s work within any genre, be it story, novel, or novella. In my mind, Aira’s creations are something different altogether. They are stories, pure and simple, which Aira has managed to ennoble by seeing them into publication in the form of a single book. What he has done is put stories into circulation as objects, which is a defiant feat when seen in the context of a global literary market that demands hefty, sprawling, “big” novels.
The key to Aira’s curious career, I think, is to be found in his conception of literature as something with more affinities to the realm of action than the inner world of reflection. Literature is perhaps nothing more complicated and glorious than the act of writing and publishing, and publishing again and again. Editing is dispensable, so is the search for the “right” publisher. (Aira publishes seemingly with whomever shows any interest in his manuscripts; at least a dozen publishers, most of them small independents, in Argentina alone.) The idea seems to be: publish first and ask questions later.2
As artifacts circulating in the material world, Aira’s books might be seen as stage props in the very real performance this author enacts in the realm of Spanish-language publishing (and, increasingly, via translations, it is a performance on the global literary stage). Aira is prolific not in terms of volume, like a Balzac or an Updike, but in the category of velocity, the dizzying frequency with which he publishes. It might be accurate to say that Aira is not really a prolific writer but a prolific publisher of his writing. If Aira wanted unanimously favorable reviews, he would refrain from publishing his weaker books and edit out questionable portions of his novels. But I think he’s after something different. He’s after a kind of ubiquity, an omnipresence, a ritualistic enactment of the literary act, which today is bound up in the creation and circulation of an object—a book.
It is notable in this regard that Aira’s first novel, Moreira (1975), is a kind of a reworking of Eduardo Gutiérrez’s undervalued classic Juan Moreira. Argentina’s first professional bestselling writer, active at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, Gutiérrez wrote serialized fictions on gauchos, bandits, and soldiers that made him a household name in belle époque Argentina (though he was considered an opportunistic scribbler by the Buenos Aires literary snobs). It might be that Gutiérrez’s proto-pulp continues to influence Aira, whose career clearly fuses the implacable publishing rhythm of the old-school newspaper serials with the sensibilities of the avant-gardes of the early 20th century. The result is perennially disorienting—once a reader begins touring Aira’s weird museum of the novel, with its 63 exhibits, another books pops up and slightly redefines the entire arrangement.
Aira is now entering the late stage of his career, and it seems he has begun to take stock. La Nueva Vida, Aira’s latest novel, is another loosely autobiographical tale that explores his first steps in publishing. The novel tells the story of a publisher/author relationship in which a Kafkaesque publisher is forever putting off the promised publication of the author’s novel. Here in a typically contradictory manner Aira is referencing his own career.
In a sense, though, Aira has always been chasing his own tail. All his books revolve around the basic questions haunting art: What is it? How do I do it? It was the same questions medieval alchemists asked: What is the essence of matter, and how do I master it? Like a true alchemist, Aira does not despair about the answers that always slip away: he enjoys the dizzying running around in circles, the constant asking. I only wonder how long he will do it for. I wonder whether he might not be nearing the point at which his search for the source of literature might come to a natural conclusion. The history of philosophy, literature, and art is full of examples of great thinkers and artists who abandoned their search once they felt they had explored all its potential. For a time, Wittgenstein abandoned philosophy and became a schoolteacher. Duchamp abandoned art for chess. Rimbaud gave up writing. The great Brazilian artist Lygia Clark drifted from painting to installation art and collective performance pieces, but ended her career practicing sensorial therapy on patients.
Aira himself has spoken, implicitly, about the abandonment of art as the culmination of an artist’s career. In his 1988 lectures at the University of Buenos Aires, he advanced the radical idea that writers of genius don’t in reality need to write a word. They might manifest their particular genius simply by being. Their actions, inevitably, would leave the appropriate mark upon the world. Their particular manner of approaching life would have its impact. Their novels or paintings would exist, but in virtual form, as potential contained in the texture of their lives. Their art might be deducted, virtually, from the manner in which they live. In Aira’s writing there’s a constant emphasis on this question: life—and, more specifically, action—as the real work of literature and art.
At the end of this lecture, citing Argentine writer Alberto Laiseca, Aira compared the writer to a magician: “The greatness and efficacy of a magician is measured by his refusal to use magic. The true magician, the greatest, is the poorest and most unfortunate of all mortals. Because between his magic and his person forgetfulness takes shape, in the form of the world.”
Literature, perhaps, is only what all of us flawed, deluded authors do when we’re still pursuing answers, convinced they are there. Aira seems to be close to lifting the veil on this search and realizing it is only a way to pass the time. For now, he’s still writing his fictions dictated by his mutant imagination, carried forward by an irrepressible momentum, drunk on imperfection. One day, perhaps, he’ll stop writing. We’ll be left with his novels, which are stepping stones, a trail of crumbs leading to a place as close to the molten heart of creation as it is possible to come without burning up.
1In my view the book is a self-conscious imitation of the Nobel Prize-winning high literary style; it is an imitation done so well it transcends parody—as Don Quijote does when it parodies chivalric epics—and becomes even better than the real thing.
2In fact Aira’s mentor, the deceased Argentine poet and novelist Osvaldo Lamborghini had a saying: “Publish first, write later.”
Marcelo Ballvé lives in Buenos Aires, where he edits the literary magazine Sancho’s Panza and the community newspaper El Sol de San Telmo.
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