Imperium (Cicero Trilogy 1) by Robert Harris

When in Rome…

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Young lawyer Cicero is already developing a reputation as a skilful lawyer and compelling orator, when one day a Sicilian by the name of Sthenius comes asking for his aid. The unscrupulous governor of Sicily, Verres, has used his position of power to openly steal from Sthenius and now Verres is using the law to further victimise him. Cicero realises that a victory against Verres would propel him into the public eye – a greatly to-be-desired outcome for a man with ambitions to win the most important office in Rome one day, that of the consulship. But while it might gain him the love of the people, it’s bound to antagonise the aristocrats…

We are told the story by Tiro, Cicero’s slave and secretary, who has invented his own system of shorthand and, as a result, has made himself essential to the great man. Robert Harris is the master of fictionalising real events in historical settings and does his usual excellent job here. Tiro really existed and did write a book about Cicero, long ago lost. Harris’ version of Tiro is a wonderful creation – he allows us to see Cicero from the viewpoint of someone loyal to him but not to the point of obsession, sometimes critical, sometimes mildly mocking. Tiro’s position as a favoured slave means that he has a good understanding of all the various players and the political games they are playing, but has no vested interest or opportunity for personal gain from them. This makes him a more objective observer than any of the other participants. From Tiro’s perspective, what’s good for Cicero is good for those dependant on him. Fortunately for Tiro, Cicero is also a good master who mostly is quite considerate, although from time to time he seems to forget that poor Tiro needs to sleep occasionally.

In his afterword, Harris says about the story that “the majority of the events it describes did actually happen; the remainder at least could have happened; and nothing, I hope (a hostage to fortune, this), demonstrably did not happen”. This is both the strength and the weakness of the novel. Like most famous people from history, Cicero’s life is mostly fairly routine disturbed by the occasional major event. The major events here are brought to life brilliantly – the investigation of Verres’ alleged crimes and his trial at the beginning of the book and the battle for the consulship at the end. The long period in the middle when Cicero is making his name, forming alliances and making political enemies also feels realistic and credible, but unfortunately isn’t nearly so interesting. Also, the picture that develops of Cicero is possibly too real – in the end, he’s just a man jostling for personal power and wealth, and as such I couldn’t get too excited about whether he won or not. I had hoped for a hero and had to settle for a politician… and gosh, I feel I’ve had my fill of them recently!

Robert Harris

The only reason I haven’t given this the full five stars is that ancient Rome and all their shenanigans isn’t a period of history I ever find wildly interesting, and even though Harris makes it more fun than most writers, my usual problem remains of zillions of characters all with remarkably similar names all vying for election to short term positions of power. My lack of knowledge was both a benefit and a drawback. I’ve seen reviews from people who know Roman history and society who have criticised some of the factual stuff, but I didn’t spot any of that and was able to just enjoy it as a story. On the other hand, there are so many people involved, both centrally and peripherally, that I’m sure it would have helped to have at least some pre-knowledge of who they all were and what they were famous for. Harris does a great job of keeping the Roman newbie informed, but I still found myself constantly trying to remember what he’d previously told us about various characters as they re-appeared a few chapters later.

So overall not my favourite Harris, but primarily because it’s not my favourite period of history. Still an excellent read, though, that held my interest enough to make me want to continue on and read the other two books in the trilogy. And fortunately my lack of knowledge of Cicero and Rome means I have no idea what awaits me…

Book 2 of 25

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Fatherland by Robert Harris

What if…?

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It is a spring day in 1964 in Berlin, when the body of an elderly man is fished out of a lake. Detective Xavier March is not convinced that the death was accident or suicide and begins to investigate. But this is a world where Nazi Germany won World War Two – a world in which Hitler still rules and the people of Germany and the lands they conquered are in the grip of a totalitarian regime. When March is told that the Gestapo are taking over the case, he finds he can’t let go of it, and soon he will begin to suspect that the murder was only a tiny part of a great conspiracy, the revelation of which would strike at the very foundations of the regime. And he finds himself in ever increasing danger…

I believe this was Harris’ ‘breakthrough’ novel when it was published back in 1992, and I’m not surprised. It’s a wonderfully realised alternative history – accept the basic premise that the Nazis won and all the rest flows from it with total credibility. The state that Harris describes is a kind of mash-up of Orwellian ideas with the realities of the Soviet Union of the Cold War era.

But I think the reason it works so well is that Harris doesn’t get too bogged down in describing his world at the expense of plot. His main characters are entirely fictional rather than, as so often happens with this kind of alternative history, fictionalised versions of real people. Although Hitler, Churchill and others get mentioned, they’re not directly involved in the story. Nor is March any different than he would have been in our reality – he’s an ordinary dedicated police detective with no great love or hate towards the regime. He’s still fairly young, so his life since a child has been under the Nazis and he accepts it as normal, and just wants to be allowed to get on with his job. It’s only as the story progresses and he gets nearer to the secret at the heart of it that he begins to realise the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in their early years.

From the 1994 HBO TV movie – the action takes place as Germany prepares to celebrate Hitler’s 75th birthday

The other aspect that I thought was done particularly well was how Harris showed what happens to regimes like this when they manage to stay in power for a long time. Just as in real totalitarian states, most people are not dissidents – they accept life as it is, grumble a bit about the things they don’t like, and don’t pay a lot of attention to things that don’t affect them directly. But it’s the ’60s, and attitudes are changing even here. Young people want to know more about the wider world – they want to travel and read books from other cultures and listen to the Beatles. With advancing technology it’s harder for the regime to control all information flows as easily as they once did so people are becoming more aware of what life is like in other parts of the world. Although the story is not about the pressure for change or for a return to democracy, the reader can sniff it in the air. The old leaders are ageing fast – the world goes on turning, regimes evolve or die. Harris handles all this superbly, I thought. He also shows how other nations, once adversaries, have had to accept the realpolitik of the situation and begin to deal with Germany as just another state. Defeated little Britain barely gets a mention, its power in the world long gone. The American President is about to finally give formal recognition to the Nazi regime by making a state visit to the country.

Robert Harris

But all this is relayed to the reader lightly as background to the main story. Meantime March is involved in a traditional style thriller, where he’s racing to find the truth before the Gestapo stop him. He’s aided by a young, female, American journalist stationed in Berlin, who as well as being involved in the main plot, tells March how the regime is seen by outsiders and reveals things about their actions that the world knows but the citizens of Nazi Germany don’t, including the Holocaust. (As a side note, I found some of the descriptions of this aspect to be particularly graphic and somewhat upsetting, though obviously true and therefore not gratuitous.)

I’ve tried not to say much about the plot because it’s nicely labyrinthine and much of the pleasure comes from being led through it gradually. I’ll simply say that while some of it is deliberately obvious, lots of it isn’t, and though I felt rightly that I knew where we were heading, I still didn’t know at all what route we would take or what would happen when we got there. I hope that’s enigmatic enough to be intriguing!

I listened to the audiobook version narrated by Michael Jayston who did a great job. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book both for the skill of the plotting and for the excellence of the creation of the alternative history. Highly recommended – Harris really is a master at this kind of historical thriller.

Book 1 of 25

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Munich by Robert Harris

Peace for our time…

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It’s September, 1938. Hitler has delivered an ultimatum – the Czechs must withdraw from the disputed Sudetenland and cede it to Germany, or Germany will forcibly annexe it. Britain is torn – if Germany carries out its threat, there will inevitably be Europe-wide war, a war for which the British armed forces are woefully under-prepared. The British PM, Neville Chamberlain, must find a way to maintain the fragile peace, even at the expense of appeasing a regime that is already showing the hideousness of its true colours. But in Germany too, the Army is not ready for war, so Hitler faces his own pressures to come to an agreement. People on each side are warning that any agreement will probably be short-term – Germany will not stop its expansion ambitions at the borders of the Sudetenland. Delay will give both nations a chance to go into the war better prepared, but Hitler is unpredictable in the extreme and seems determined to proceed whatever the cost. As the two nations warily circle each other, two young men will play a secret role. Hugh Legat is a secretary in the British Foreign Office; Paul Hartmann is his equivalent in Germany. They know each other well – they studied together in Oxford and have a shared history that will be slowly revealed. And now they will find themselves thrown together again, in a shadowy world of secret deals and betrayals that may determine the course of history.

As always, Harris shows himself a master of riveting storytelling. The book is in fact a fairly straightforward account of the events leading up to and at the Munich conference where Hitler, Chamberlain and a few of the other European leaders met to determine the fate of the Sudetenland. Anyone of my generation will know the outcome, but I’m going to try to leave it a little vague, since the book would work, I think, as a good thriller for those younger people who may not. In truth the fictionalised aspect – the story of Legat and Hartmann – is rather lightly tacked on and in my opinion doesn’t add much. It feels as if it’s only there to justify the book being considered ‘fiction’. But the basic story is so compelling, I didn’t feel it needed much fictionalisation anyway, so that aspect didn’t bother me.

Chamberlain and Hitler shake hands in Munich, September 30, 1938
Photo: AP

What Harris does so well is bring the historical characters to life and take the reader deep into the complexities that faced them. Because WW2 did eventually happen and Churchill, the arch-opponent of appeasement, was ultimately proved right in his long-term predictions, Chamberlain has had a bad rap in this country – remembered as a weak, deluded man who allowed Hitler to manipulate him, largely because that’s how Churchill portrayed him. Harris doesn’t mess with the historical facts (as far as I can tell – I’m far from being an expert about this period of history), but he takes a more nuanced view of Chamberlain’s character, delving into his reasons, personal and political, for acting as he did. I found it entirely believable and oddly moving – the intolerable pressures we put on our leaders, and our unforgiving criticism if they fall short in any way. Churchill doesn’t appear as a major character, but is there in the background. Hindsight makes the heroes and villains of history – at this point, it still wasn’t clear if Churchill was right that war was inevitable or if Chamberlain was right in hoping that peace could be maintained. Britain – Europe – hadn’t yet recovered from WW1, and there was little appetite for more war in most countries.

The Munich conference itself is brilliantly depicted – Harris has the skill to allow the reader to become the proverbial fly on the wall. We see it mostly from the British perspective, and meet some of the more junior people there who would become leaders in their own right over the following decades. Hitler and his closest henchmen are mostly seen through the eyes of others rather than directly, and again Harris gives a somewhat more balanced view than the caricature Hitler is sometimes presented as. I don’t for one moment mean that Harris tries to whitewash him, but he shows how Hitler rose to power on the promise to make Germany great again after the humiliation of WW1 and the economic disasters that followed, caused partly by the war itself and partly by the terms of the peace treaty forced on them. But Harris also shows that there was opposition even at this point – a significant minority who recognised the evil of the regime and were doing what they could to stop him.

Robert Harris

I found this another completely absorbing read from Harris. I feel as if I have a much better knowledge of this crucial moment in European history and a deeper understanding of the personalities involved, especially Chamberlain. The joy of Harris’ writing, though, is that it never feels like he’s teaching or preaching – despite the plot being light and a little under-developed, it still allows him to make the story read like a thriller, with enough uncertainty so that there’s a real feeling of suspense even for people who know the historical outcome. I suspect that people who prefer an intense plot might feel a little disappointed. But for people who are more interested in the fascinating and entirely credible portrayal of the real people and events, I recommend this wholeheartedly. A great read.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hutchison.

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Conclave by Robert Harris

The Pope is dead, long live the Pope…

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conclaveCardinal Lomeli fears the worst when he gets an urgent summons to the bedside of the elderly Pope. By the time he gets there, the Pope has died. Even as the various cardinals kneel by his bedside to pray, one thought is in all of their minds – a new Pope will have to be chosen, and soon. Some are ambitious and would welcome the challenge, some even have informal teams in place to canvas for them, others fear the enormity of the role and include in their prayers a plea to God that He will not choose them. As Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Lomeli will have the task of running the Conclave – the meeting of all the cardinal electors to whom will fall the task of selecting the new Pope.

This is an absolutely fascinating and absorbing look at the process of how a new Pope is chosen. In the first few pages, we are introduced to so many people that I feared I’d never get a handle on who they all were, but quite quickly Harris develops the main players well enough for them to start to emerge as individuals, and, as the book goes on, we, like the cardinals, spend so much time sequestered in the claustrophobic atmosphere of the Conclave that we become aware of their weakness and strengths. The Conclave works as a series of ballots, and by about the second ballot, I found I was totally engrossed in picking the man I thought would make the best Pope just as much as the characters in the book were.

Of course, this is a novel, not a factual book, so Harris makes sure there are plenty of scandals and secrets to come out, each one subtly changing the balance of power amongst the cardinals. But I found it refreshing that he chose not to try to denigrate the process by making it look like an entirely political battle for control of this enormously powerful organisation, nor by going for the easy target of the recent child abuse scandals. While many of the characters are flawed and ambitious, they are on the whole shown as true Christians, struggling through prayer and conscience to decide what’s best for their Church and their religion. We see the desire of the majority of these men to open their hearts to God, believing that He will guide them in their decision. I don’t know, of course, whether it’s really like that in a Conclave, but I rather hope it is.

On Lomeli went. Bellini… Benitez… Brandão D’Cruz… Brotkus… Cárdenas… Contreras… Courtemarche… He knew them all so much better now, their foibles and their weaknesses. A line of Kant’s came into his mind: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made…” The Church was built of crooked timber – how could it not be? But by the grace of God it fitted together. It had endured two thousand years; if necessary it would last another two weeks without a Pope. He felt suffused by a deep and mysterious love for his colleagues and their frailties.

Crucifixion of St Peter by Michelangelo in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast...
Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of St Peter in the Pauline Chapel where the ballots are cast…

Harris shows the divisions in the Church between the traditionalists and the modernisers, suggesting almost that the Church could be facing schism if the new Pope fails to find a way to bridge the gulf. The Italian cardinals still think of it as their Church and hope for a return to an Italian papacy; the African cardinals feel liberalisation has gone too far, particularly over questions like homosexuality, and have a keen desire to see the first black Pope; the Americans and Europeans would like to see that liberalisation taken still further, with even some dangerous talk of women being given more prominent positions in the higher echelons of the Curia. And the plot also touches on the question of the religious fundamentalism sweeping the world, bringing war and terror in its wake, and how the various factions feel the Church should respond to that.

Amidst all this, Cardinal Lomeli must deal with the secrets that come to light, battling with his conscience as to how much he should allow himself to interfere with the process. Sequestered from the world for the duration, still scraps of information make their way in that could influence the minds of the electors. Should he tell, or should he remain silent? Will his interference look like a shabby attempt to sway the vote in his own preferred direction? Lomeli is a wonderful character, fully developed and entirely believable, a man who finds more strength than he ever thought he had, and who spends much of his time searching his own heart in a bid to ensure that he is truly open to God’s will.

I read this book over two days and any time I had to stop, I couldn’t wait to get back to it. You may be wondering then why it hasn’t got the full five stars from me. And annoyingly, I can’t tell you because it would take the review deep into spoiler territory. So all I can say is that the book crossed the credibility line twice for me – once forgivably in terms of taking some fictional licence, but the other leaving me feeling that the amazingly authentic impression given by the bulk of the book had been somewhat spoiled. So I’m afraid it only gets four and a half stars in the end, despite having been one of the books I’ve most enjoyed reading this year. But I still highly recommend it, especially since your credibility line may well be drawn in a different place from mine. And I hope you’ll all read it very quickly because, if I don’t have someone to discuss it with soon, I may well spontaneously combust!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Hutchinson.

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Enigma by Robert Harris

Masterful storytelling…

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enigma 2It’s 1943, and the Allies rely on the shipping convoys from the US to keep their battered countries fed and munitioned. The tide has been flowing in the Allies favour since the German Enigma codes were broken at Bletchley Park in the South of England. But now the Germans have changed the U-boat code, threatening not only individual convoys but the entire defeat of the Allied forces. Tom Jericho, hailed as one of the most brilliant codebreakers, is on a break, suffering from a combination of stress, overwork and a broken heart over a girl named Claire. But with this new threat, despite his fragile health, he’s urgently needed back in Bletchley. And when he gets there, he discovers Claire is missing…

What a joy, after a series of less than stellar reads, to find myself in the safe hands of a master storyteller once again! This is a masterclass in how to write a book. The writing is so good it hooks instantly. Harris recreates wartime Britain with what feels like total authenticity; and specifically the world of these men, recruited for their brilliant minds, their maths and puzzle solving skills, on whose youthful shoulders it sometimes feels the whole weight of the war rests. Throughout the book, Harris feeds out his extensive research into Bletchley and codebreaking at the right moments and in the right quantities, as a natural part of the story so that it never feels like an info dump. He carefully creates his characters to feel real and then ensures their actions remain true to that characterisation. And oh, bliss! The book has an actual plot – a proper story, that remains credible throughout and holds the reader’s attention right to the end! The pleasure of reading this well-crafted, expertly-paced story highlighted to me what a rarity that has become in contemporary fiction.

The book starts in Cambridge University, where Jericho has been sent to recuperate. The whole feeling of the ancient university in wartime is beautifully created, setting the tone for the rest of the book. The old staircases and shabby rooms, the ancient traditions; the dullness of an institution empty of so many of the young men and women who would normally have been there, but who are instead part of the war effort; the gossiping staff with too much time on their hands, speculating about the arrival of this young man and then his sudden departure; the difficult position of young men not in uniform, but whose work is too secret to be revealed.

Bletchley Park
Bletchley Park

On arriving back at Bletchley, Jericho finds that two convoys have left the US and are crossing the Atlantic. The Americans want assurances that the codes will be broken quickly enough to allow for these convoys to be protected, but Jericho sees no hope of that. Instead, he believes that by monitoring the signals of the U-boats that will be aiming towards the convoys, he might gather enough information to break the codes. Harris shows very clearly the ethical dilemmas the young codebreakers must face – they find themselves almost hoping for the convoys to be attacked so that they can get the information they need. Harris also raises the point that it was often necessary not to act on the information gathered from Enigma so that the Germans wouldn’t realise the codes had been broken and change them. Thus many Allied lives were sacrificed in the hopes of saving many more by eventually winning the war. He doesn’t labour these points in a heavy-handed way, but he uses them to show the almost unbearable levels of stress the codebreakers worked under, coupled with the necessary secrecy of the work which left them somewhat detached from the rest of society, in a little bubble of constant tension.

No wonder then that suspicion was never absent, the fear of spying a real and present threat. So when Jericho discovers something that forces him to question Claire’s loyalty, he is torn. His head knows he should make the authorities aware of what he’s found, but his heart wants to find her and give her an opportunity to explain. And soon he finds himself teamed up with Claire’s old house-mate, Hester, backtracking through Claire’s actions in an attempt to find explanations.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

The plot gives Harris the opportunity to gradually lead the reader through how the whole set-up worked, from the soldiers and sailors risking their lives to get hold of code books, to the listening stations on the South Coast where the women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) intercepted the coded German signals*, and on to the huts in Bletchley, each responsible for an aspect of the war; Eastern Front, naval manoeuvres, etc. Harris shows how women were restricted to being glorified clerks, regardless of their skills or aptitude, while only men were given the more glamorous job of the actual code-breaking. But his few female characters are excellently drawn, strong and credible within the limitations the system forced upon them. The stuff about the codebreaking is complex, sometimes too complex for me, but the story doesn’t get bogged down in it. As with all of the best spy thrillers, there is a growing sense of moral ambiguity throughout, where even the motives of the baddies are equivocal.

A first rate spy thriller, written with all the qualities of literary fiction, this one gets my highest recommendation. And now to watch the film…

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*including my mother.

Book 11
Book 11

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris

an officer and a spyJ’accuse!

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Based on the true story of Alfred Dreyfus, a French military officer convicted of spying for the Germans in the late 19th century, the book begins with Dreyfus’ humiliation as he is stripped of his rank and military honours in front of his army colleagues and a baying, jeering public crowd. With Dreyfus sent off to Devil’s Island and kept in almost total isolation, the matter was officially considered closed. However as suspicions began to emerge that he was not the spy after all, the army and members of the government began a cover-up that would eventually destroy reputations, wreck careers and even lives, and change the political landscape of France. This fictionalised account is based on the verifiable facts of the affair and, as far as I know, sticks pretty closely to them.

We are given the story as the first-person account of Major Georges Picquart. Having been the Minister of War’s eyes and ears during the trial and Dreyfus’ subsequent ‘military degradation’, Picquart is then appointed to the post of head of the ‘Statistical Section’ – a euphemism for the spy branch of the army. Convinced at first of Dreyfus’ guilt, he becomes concerned when evidence comes to light that indicates a different source for the leaks to the Germans. On drawing this to his superiors’ attention, he is ordered not to pursue the matter. However his conscience won’t allow him to let the matter rest there and soon he is part of the ‘Dreyfusards’ – the informal group of artists, liberals and thinkers who are campaigning for the case to be re-opened.

Auguste Mercier Minister of War
Auguste Mercier
Minister of War
Alfred Dreyfus
Alfred Dreyfus
Georges Picquart
Georges Picquart

 

This is a fascinating story in real life and Harris succeeds in making it just as interesting in a fictionalised form. The book is lengthy and allows him to examine the various different aspects of French society that made the case both so complex and so significant. At a time when France was still suffering the shame of losing Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans and with the fear of a future war never far from the thoughts of the politicians, Dreyfus, as a Jew and something of a misfit in the army, was the ideal scapegoat. But the real interest is not in the conviction, but in the conspiracy to cover up the mistakes of the original investigation, and the extreme lengths to which those in power were willing to go to ensure that the verdict of guilty would stand.

Emile Zola's famous open letter to the President of France accusing the authorities of a deliberate cover-up of evidence in the case
Emile Zola’s famous open letter to the President of France accusing the authorities of a deliberate cover-up of evidence in the case

We get a clear picture of the status of the army and the generals’ influence on the politicians. We see how both anti-German sentiment and anti-Semitism played their part in the affair, though I felt that Harris rather played down the former in order to somewhat over-emphasise the latter in his telling of the tale. Harris shows the underlying political divide in French society that evolved into Dreyfusard and anti-Dreyfusard movements – leaving the man himself as something of a pawn in the midst of a struggle that had grown well beyond the simple matter of his guilt or innocence. But Harris manages to humanise Dreyfus by letting the reader see some of the correspondence between him and his wife during his captivity and by telling us of the physical and mental hardships he was subjected to.

Robert Harris
Robert Harris

Well written and thought-provoking, my only real criticism of the book is that Harris has jumped on the fashionable bandwagon of using the present tense – a fashion I truly hope comes to an end fairly soon – and this reads even more clumsily because it’s also a first-person account. I know authors think the present tense gives immediacy to a narrative, but it rarely does in actuality and, for me at least, didn’t at all in this one. There’s very little ‘action’ and the tense doesn’t suit a story that is stretched over more than a decade and is obviously being told retrospectively. However, Harris handles the device as well as most and better than many, and despite it the book is a very interesting and human account of this momentous event in French history. Although I was aware of the basic facts of the affair, the book gave me a much clearer idea of the personalities and politics involved, while, by concentrating on Picquart’s story, Harris avoided the pitfalls of making it overly preachy or impersonal. And his account is detailed enough that the book would be equally enjoyable to someone who doesn’t know about this episode – perhaps more so in fact since there would then be an element of suspense (which I have done my best not to spoil). Highly recommended.

I was inspired to read this book as a result of this review from Lady Fancifull. Thanks, LF – yet another in the long list of great books you’ve introduced me to!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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