Voices for Manuel Puig: a very, very, very late response to March’s reading

(Note: Sorry for the late response! Wasn’t around much in March.)

“Embroidery doesn’t seem tiring, but then your back begins to ache.” (7)

“But by watering the pots practically twenty times a day she finally managed to grow some beautiful plants in a kind of small patio behind the kitchen.” (8)

“Because he likes croquettes and can’t eat fried food. Clara takes the time to boil the meat for him, cut it up, season it with rosemary and cheese and pop it in the oven for a few minutes till the croquettes turn golden brown. They look like real croquettes; she fools the eye and doesn’t upset the stomach.” (13)

“First you have to sweep, then you go over it with a dry mop till the floor’s clean enough to take the wax. Then you dip the mop in the wax, without soaking it, and you spread an even coat of wax over the entire floor. Then you let it dry a little and then comes the most tiring part, which is walking over it with rags to bring out the shine.” (13-14).

 

*

 

I like a novel that begins with women’s voices, women’s conversation—about work, gossip, future plans, physical pain. A novel that talks, not necessarily to you or for you. A novel that makes you listen, not just to any voices, but to voices so often dismissed, ignored or totally silenced: the female typists who work backbreaking hours; the housewife; later, the maid, the nurse.

Puig turns the idea of the disembodied voice on its no-longer-figurative head; these voices belong to the invisible labouring bodies behind the cross-stitch, the typed page, the waxed floor, the healthy plant, the healthful croquette. Jackie Wang, in a blog post on building the language-house, writes: “Listening is a policy of the language-house, which I should distinguish from hearing. You can listen with your body too, and with whatever extrasensory perceptual organs you have.”

Puig is asking you to listen with everything, to everything. The entire environment is animated to speak, to mean, to bear a human trace: what a cross-stitch is saying, what a typed page is saying, what a waxed floor is saying. About the working bodies held in them. How the everyday still has to be produced, and who produces it.

If anything, this chorus of voices makes for a kind of re-embodying, a fragile path back to an unseen body. Even when you can’t see the body, it’s there, Puig reminds us.

“I always see the same faces there, there’s so little light in that library. Those miserable lamps hanging from the ceiling are black with dirt, they each have white glass shades, like ballet tutus, but absolutely black with soot. With a rag soaked in turpentine they could be cleaned in a minute, the lights as well as the shades, and there would be more light in that library.” (16)

Writing can be like a rag soaked in turpentine. “More light in that library.” Puig isn’t talking only about cleaning, or even clarity, but the complex and ongoing process of illumination, of transparency. How can you better see the things that are already there, but kept shrouded? How to handle the moral difficulty—the moral urgency—of finding a way to bring something into light and audition; of seeing and hearing things by seeing and hearing through things?

Why dialogue instead of description? What kinds of discourses are being refused by the novel (the omniscient narrator, the third person, the aerial view, uniformity of tense), and what kinds of discourses are being emphasized? In a novel where every character’s lives and actions are being violently circumscribed, what does it mean for every word in that novel to be defiantly, insistently rooted in subjecthood? In what that character thinks, feels, lives.

Speaking for myself, at least, for the writer that I am: the formal question has always been a moral question. How do you find the words that are commensurate to the matter that will be held in them? “The most tiring part . . . is walking over it with rags to bring out the shine.”

 

*

 

Another way of thinking about Betrayed by Rita Hayworth is as a transvestite text. The writing moves between genders, registers, classes, ages, sexualities, personalities. Earlier I wrote, “Even when you can’t see the body, it’s there.” From Transvestism, Masculinity and Latin-American Literature by Ben Sifuentes-Jáuregui: “Transvestism . . . represents an instance where the notion of the body is difficult to determine. Writing on the body is an uneasy as well as unstable activity.”

“Transvestism inaugurates an epistemological shift that locates, defines, performs, and erases the fundamental dichotomy: Self/Other. This transvestitic erasure of the boundaries between the Self and the Other precipitates and manifests an anxiety that could be called “the denaturalization of genders.” Transvestism is an operating strategy that deconstructs a specific “normality” in a gender binary and hierarchy.”

 

*

 

“Just because we’re maids they think they can pull up our skirts and do anything they want to.” (17)

“The nurses that the hospital go home at night all live on those dirt streets, and they go home alone.”(17)

“Those nurses are all tramps.”(17)

“You better be careful since they can see you’re a maid and I’ll bet you’re on their list already, even if you are only twelve. One of those bums who live around your house might chase you.”(17)

“I’m going to take care of you until you grow up.” (23)

 

*

 

How to grow up with a family heavy with nurses or maids. If you hear a bell or an imperious voice, it’s for you. As a Southeast Asian nurse working in a veteran’s hospital (for one of her jobs, at least), my mother gets told a lot of brutal shit. Her face is one that a certain generation of men have been taught to hate. There’s a new face now, but there always is.

She’ll work a sixteen-hour shift through another kidney infection, but has expressly taken a day off from work to watch the royal wedding. I bought a commemorative pillow for her; I’m still looking for the right coffee mug. I often think the escapist impulse in art is the most political one. It’s the word “from.” Escape from. Provenance always being a political question. Celebrity is a city full of refugees.

I also once had a rich friend whose family routinely abused their relationship with my mother to get free prescription drugs, syringes and rides to school. Once, that rich friend’s grandmother asked me to hold out her hand. I did. She absently spit her gum into it. One of the many lessons. Your body is another place to put trash in.

In Betrayed, the name of the woman who gets stitches to hide the fact that she’s no longer a virgin, is also my mother’s name.

Rita Hayworth is both Spanish and American, that’s also a betrayal. For Latin Americans and Filipinos: Spain and America always appear like someone rich and beautiful who stabs you in the back (and the front, really).

 

*

 

“A bad gypsy with a face made of coal and hair arms steals little boys who are well dressed and have run away” (26)

“…but a policeman puts him in jail because he knows he’s a gypsy, yes” (26)

“Aren’t you ashamed to be in the ladies’ room, sissy?” (26)

“Ginger Rogers twirls all around a big house and they had to take all the furniture out so that Ginger wouldn’t bump into anything, she knows how to tap dance without scratching the floor” (29-30).

 

*

 

 

*

 

“What does ‘fucks’ mean? ‘It’s a bad thing that you can’t do, you can only make believe, because if a girl does it she’s lost, finished forever.’” (31)

“The girl who does it is lost, finished forever, the big boy comes along, gets real close, sees that Pocha is sleeping, very slowly picks up her dress with little green flowers, and Pocha forgot to put her underpants on! and so that she doesn’t move the boy puts his weeny in the little hole in her tail and he moves his hairs all over her, and if Pocha stays still like a fishie the boy’s hairs start eating her behind, and then her tummy, and the heart, and the ears, and little by little he eats her all up. The little gold chain, paper curls, shoes and socks, the dress with little green flowers and her undershirt are all left on the floor with nothing inside. Pocha is lost, finished forever, she’s never seen again.” (33)

“But I am not a bad fishie, I’m a good fishie and I untie the rope and Shirley Temple escapes. Because I’m going to be good like Shirley” (35)

 

*

 

Shirley Temple and Ginger Rogers aren’t gypsies or friends with gypsies. They go to the ladies’ room because they’re ladies. They don’t have to prove they’re not sissies. They’re never fucked, or fucked over. The room is cleared at their convenience.

 

*

 

“From having suffered so because to do such strong dramatic roles she must have had a terrible life, you can see she feels them. She just started working as an actress after she became a widow” (41).

“You’d say ‘yes’ to everything because he’d promise to let you go to La Plata” (43).

“A silk bathrobe, in a perfumed room, or something like that” (46).

“One of the things I enjoy most is to try on all my clothes in the hotel and study myself in the mirror” (51).

“There’s nothing like being well dressed, you look like somebody else entirely. Because you are what you are, whether it’s sagging breasts or a potbelly, which I don’t have at all, the thing is that with a well-made dress, that covers the faults, a woman can be gorgeous and she’s no longer just any woman” (52).

“No, but it’s more interesting as if she were hiding a past. Where do these women get the courage to lead that kind of life? The jewel thieves, or the spies. Or even the smugglers. But they have another kind of life. More interesting. Because that’s the main thing, that people see her pass by and say ‘what an interesting woman . . . who can she be?’” (52).

 

*

 

“Today after piano I have English and at five I’m all finished and I come in for my milk, and the store people are already back so I can go and play a little with Lalo who’s big and wears long pants and lets me help him stick label son the bottles, he’s nice, but Dad once said he’s a troublemaker and Dad bets they’re going to get rid of him before the month’s over. Lalo is the nicest looking, he’s not a dirty Indian like the others even though he lives on the dirt streets too he doesn’t have an Indian face and brown teeth from that salty well water, he looks like an actor, like in the serial about the boy who escapes from reform school who is really good but in a moment of anger he knifes a policeman.” (54)

 

*

 

Hollywood is (was?) full of and made by refugees and immigrants. Even Rouben Mamoulian, the director of Blood and Sand, the Rita Hayworth movie Toto with his mother and father—a first—is an Armenian, born in Georgia, back when it was Russia. The wait for an exit visa from Hollywood is so much shorter.

Mamoulian directed Greta Garbo in Queen Christina. Queen Christina, who, in the film, falls in love with a Spaniard and has to decide whether or not to betray an entire country for him.

Mamoulian told Garbo: “I want your face to be a blank sheet of paper. I want the writing to be done by every member of the audience.”

I don’t think it takes someone seeking refuge to know this, but it doesn’t hurt: that film isn’t just a world you’re shown or a fantasy you’re offered, but a page you can write on. A page to write into, the words tugging you forth into it like a lasso in a western. That writing can be a hole you make in the world, into another world.

(That the material of this page is all-too-often made of a female body should not go unnoted, however.)

Brown people writing letters to white stars. I keep thinking about Noel Alumit’s book, Letters to Montgomery Clift, about a young queer Filipino boy who writes letters to Montgomery Clift. A young queer boy sent to America by his mother after his dissident-writer father has been disappeared during the Marcos regime. Confiding in Montgomery Clift. Making love to Montgomery Clift. Begging Montgomery Clift for help. The boy’s father was tortured and killed. He cannot even think the things that have been done to his mother. Later, when he is put into the psychiatric ward of a hospital, one doctor tells him, in an attempt to break him of his habit of writing to Clift: “Your religion is a 1950s movie star. There is something absurd about that.”

Brown people writing letters to white stars. I keep looking for Jalal Toufic’s letter to Christy Turlington, but I can’t find it. Like so many letters I’ve loved: I lost it. The letter is fragile.

 

*

 

“…but I felt like listening some more that he wanted to put his weeny in her so that she couldn’t move and right then and there take advantage and hit her and tear off her clothes to see her tits, and make streaks all over her with a knife and pinch so hard it hurts even more and make black and blue marks all over her body … until the worst moment comes when ou see things inside men’s bodies, the green cup that can spring out and bite, and the knot of pipes that twine around your neck and press harder and harder like when you get hanged, and that poisonous spider’s body, whose touch must make you want to scream louder than anybody, even louder than the girl who goes crazy in King’s Row, and women can’t scream because if someone comes they’ll see he put his weeny in her and Paquí is a whore. And in the end that’s what they are, Paquí’s a whore and Raul García’s a bum, and I thought he was so nice, I could never play with him, and Paquí tells him she won’t even let him put his weeny between her legs, only the day she gets married, and he I don’t know what he’s doing, as if somebody had kicked him in the stomach he began to say ah-ah-ah-ah as if he was drowning and Paquí was trying to break away saying he was dirtying her, that he ‘s splashing all over her legs and whoops! she saw me spying and grabbed me and shook me back and forth and bullied me saying I was a tattletale and that I had to swear to God I wouldn’t say a word, and she ran off Paquí, Paquita, I want to wait in your house till I don’t look like I was crying anymore! Paquí! Paquí! who could tell me if Dad’s at the movies? who would know if Dad’s home or not and Raul García came and grabbed me by the arm and said if I went and told anybody he would break my head, his face like a bad guy’s without shouting so the neighbors wouldn’t hear” (72)

 

*

 

“Toto had put little linen dresses for dolls on sale, and frilly laces for infants too, I went to the bedroom to ask Mommy for a handkerchief to blow my nose and Daddy was telling Mita and Mommy that Toto only wanted to play with little girls and only wanted to go to the movies with its stuffy air, and Mita said he was right because Berto had already said the same thing: boys have to play with boys. And when I came back from the bedroom Totot had a surprise, a little box full of . . . things he’d robbed from Paquí’s dolls, and that he’d give me for a present if I played with him every day. And at the best part Mita came in, she had to wash Toto, she always washes him later but that day no, and Toto didn’t want to because he’d been waiting for me ever since he knew I was coming to Vallejos, he didn’t want to take a bath, but then he did if we could play i n the bathtub together but Daddy didn’t want that because Toto is a boy. And while Mita was washing him in the bathtub, I spied through the little key hole, but I couldn’t see anything because the bathtub is on the side and with the noise of the faucet Mita was saying to Toto that she forbids him to play store any more with Paquí’s stolen things and also color in actresses because those are not boys’ things and if she saw it again she was going to punish him and he would have no more movies.” (85)

 

*

 

“Get hold of him for just once and bring up the subject, that he fucked the Mansilla and Echague kids, Toto saw it in recess, it’s not allowed to go into the tall grace in the back of the schoolyard and the teachers check to see if somebody’s sneaked in. But Noziglia’s as strong as a grown-up and grabs one of the kids in his grade that he’s been hungering for, seeing him so clean all the time with a starched uniform just like the teacher, and he’s fourteen but he got left back and the kids in the class are ten years old and he looks at them during class and in recess he grabs the one he’s had his eye on and takes him over to the wall and if the kid doesn’t escape or scream he grabs him from behind right there, pulls his pants down a little and opens his own fly and hides it all with the little kid’s uniform and his own and that’s what Baldy López did in my time, in fifth grade he was already creaming in his jeans since he was thirteen and he’d plug the little guys who’d let him, the Asteri kid let him for a box kite and then Baldy the jerk didn’t give it to him, I don’t know how Baldy could get it in, with the tree trunk he had, and the mess of it was that if it hurt, the kid would shout and a teacher could hear, but what shit, with all the shouting of recesss and one day Baldy asked me why I didn’t plug Indian, even if he didn’t want to let me, didn’t matter if he shouted or not, they would never know, Indian could give me his word and yell just the same, because of the pain, you got to be a son of a bitch like Baldy to find that fun, and Noziglia is the one who plugs everybody now, Toto saw how he fucked the Mansilla kid and that was the first time he saw fucking, he said he saw the Mansilla kid standing against the wall looking like he had an upset stomach and dripping tears, Noziglia behind him holding him and pumping him and he saw Toto come near and said ‘giddyap horsy’ Noziglia the bully making believe because he know Toto was a dumbbell and didn’t understand a thing, besides it was all covered up with Mansilla’s uniform, all plaited like a woman’s. And another day he saw Echague, against the same wall, looking like he was having an operation, dumbbell Toto said, eyes like the boys in the hospital after they’ve had their tonsils taken out, half fainting and bibs like babies, covered with blood vomit, and he saw Echague’s eyes and the mouth Noziglia covered with his hands because they had take Echague by force, between Noziglia and two other smaller kids from the class, Noziglia’s bootlickers, and with the other hand he cinched him by the stomach and was pumping away, one of the kids stood guard to see if a teacher was coming and the other standing on Echague’s foot so he wouldn’t kick Nozaglia and Echague’s other leg Noziglia had up high wrapped around his own. To torture him Toto said, but it was so he could put it into him and Toto went to call a teacher but when she got there Noziglia had already let go and the teacher didn’t say a thing but that’s when they must have put Toto on their list, I don’t think they worked on him before” (124)

 

*

 

“Once upon a time there was a great factory and the best foreman that ever lived. His hands controlled the heaviest and most difficult tools, he’d bend them to his will and repair each and every machine of the establishment, the great forge that turns out millions of yards of fabric a day. One of those days in which the infinite production of yards (also infinite is Fate’s treachery) was piling up as usual thanks to the efforts of my father and his keen eye which didn’t let not one of those iron pieces slacken . . . in a moment . . . perhaps absorbed in something he saw which seemed to be working wrong, he let his right hand rest for the last time on the murderous roller that hacked it off, the oil cloth roller which in love with that strong hand took it away forever” (168).

“Casals, blessed are thou Casals! I told him: ‘Casals, yesterday afternoon I had to go pick up the papers for my father at the Ministry of Social Security, as you know mutilated workers receive a pension, and on the way I walked down the Adlon street and I couldn’t find it, I guess you must have given me the wrong directions,’ and I don’t exactly remember how the conversation followed, but anyway . . . can it be truth? is God a shooting star? what a thing to say! how dare I bring up that folly?” (169).

 

*

 

Puig, in his 1988 Paris Review interview:

“Films are synthesis. Everyday grayness, everyday realism is especially tough to translate to the screen. I remember discussing this once with a filmmaker, who said, “Yes, but look at the realistic films the Italians made, such as De Sica’s Umberto D.” I disagreed. There’s nothing of everyday grayness in Umberto D—it’s about suicide, about deciding whether to kill yourself or not. It’s an epic film disguised as an everyday realistic one. What I like to do in my novels is to show the complexity of everyday life; the subtexture of social tensions and the pressures behind each little act of ours.”

Subtexture of social tensions and pressures. Or: the brutality of race relations, gender relations and sexual relations. What I like about what Puig is saying here is the refusal of any abstract or purely formal concept of the “everyday,” which often accompanies discussions of Puig’s style as it relates to his subject matter. Here Puig is clear—enough talk about grayness, that De Sica film is about people who don’t know whether or not they should kill themselves. About environmental suffering. Pain in actual lives and bodies. Puig knows that looking closely at the everyday is never boring, when you know how to look and with what organs.

Which is what makes the condescending and myopic introduction to Betrayed so infuriating. According to Cheuse, “for Puig’s characters, a net of family members and friend who live in the small town in the vast expanse of the Argentine pampas, the movies show everything one needs to know about life, which is mainly about family and love.” Life, family and love: all those cozy markers of universality that entirely efface distinctions like race, class, sexuality.

Later, and worse: “I also would like to add that having just reread the novel after a gap of some years since its publication, I would certainly put it in the category that Vargas Llosa seems to be establishing for works of modernist difficulty: the novel that gives you a headache. By the time I was only a few pages in, and paying close attention again to some of the techniques by which Puig was going to render the childhood and adolescence of his main character, a pampas boy nicknamed ‘Toto,’ and his family and friends, I could feel the beginnings of something like a migraine.”

In this introduction, so eager to identify (and then ridicule) Puig’s “modernist difficulty”: no mention of Paquí and Raul García, of the imagined dirty Indian boy who in his anger stabs a policeman, of the boys raped by Noziglia, of the foreman who lost his hand to an oil cloth roller. Of the oppressive codes of masculinity that deform Toto’s relationships with his family, his peers, his loves and desires. Of women who have to be careful walking home because their bodies are disposable and because gang rape is one of the many rites of passage. Of the maid whom Toto stabs as he is yet again being lectured about how to be a boy and not a chicken or a woman; and who doesn’t even say “ouch.” Of hair whose specific curl and grease reveal your class (low). Of “Mommy slaps me but it doesn’t hurt much but when Daddy slaps you he breaks you in two” (28). Of consent that isn’t consent but coercion, so the girl can only be ashamed of herself. Of the aunt that goes crazy and makes holes in her stockings and the uncle who is capable of murder if he doesn’t like a joke. Of the Catholic morality that exercises its jurisdiction over body and mind, and the priest who says it’s a bigger sin for a girl to fuck than kill, “because to kill you need a knife or a gun, while to sin with boys you only have to think about it and it’s already a sin” (77). Of homosocial hazing at boarding school that includes knocking Toto out with a chloroform rag and raping him. Of Toto’s mother who loses her child (“she came to knife me with the infected scalpel, it hurts so much it’s unbearable, a wound made by a butcher, a wound that gets bigger; don’t cry Berto says, and a wound hurts till it heals, when will it heal? a wound that doesn’t heal is probably infected. It gets worse, it gets bigger and bigger and he doesn’t let me cry” [111]). Of bodies forbidden from weeping: “and men reassure themselves thinking they can hold back the tears and that’s what makes them real men, because they are real men, because they can hold them back, but they can hold them back because they can, since if they couldn’t hold them back they couldn’t reassure themselves thinking because they can hold them back they’re real men. They hold them back because they feel less, or is it because they feel nothing at all?” (112)

 

*

 

Cheuse: “Doesn’t this give you a headache just thinking about it?”

Everything aches just thinking about it. Not just my head.

 

*

 

Puig on transparency again:

“My neighborhood is still in the night, these modest calico curtains allow me to see the street through their flowers, as fanciful as they are faded. Dad says that in the factory you can’t go near the machines where they’re printing calico because of the smell of those cheap inks, not to mention that they use all waste products in the making of calico. Everything in life is a matter of fate, I can’t figure out why, on such cheap material, they make such crazy designs of flowers that, if they exist, must belong to a very rare tropical species. But the colors come out blotted and the material is so thin you can see through to what’s on the other side: the street and the houses across the way” (177).

You know Puig is a compassionate writer because he keeps giving away the secret heart of his style. He keeps telling you what he’s doing. Earlier: the lamps covered in soot, the rag dipped in turpentine. Now: toxic ink, cheap material, crazy designs. “The colors come out blotted, and the material is so thin you can see through to what’s on the other side.” The transparent film of writing. What can be projected onto it, and what can be seen through it. What can sometimes only be shown by looking through a filter, a curtain, a screen; what can only be heard through cacophony, noise, chatter, gossip. A writing like calico, like chintz. Puig’s interest in bad taste (in the “loud.”) Puig’s interest in the vulgar—the root of which of course means: the common people.

As a writer—and an unfinished filmmaker—Puig is sensitive to what cannot be shown through outright singular description or demonstration alone; what has to be gleaned, glimpsed.

 

*

 

From his boarding school in Merlo (named after George Washington; American celebrities are everywhere), Toto writes regular and thoughtful letters to his mother—and obviously gets the shit taken out of him for it by his peers, who do one of the worst things you can do to a letter, and which bullies often do: steal it and read it aloud. Rip the inner guts of the letter out and make them fodder for public consumption. Wave the letter’s nakedness around for sport and spectacle.

The feminized genre of epistolary writing. (Another form that shows up in Betrayed: diaries.) Realm of the private, the subjective, the intimate address. Often, women could only (and sometimes can still only) enter literature on the surface of a letter. Earlier I said the letter is fragile, but it also makes its writers fragile. The uniquely protected space of the letter; its openness, its invitation to vulnerability. I’ve often thought that almost everything I write is a letter, and all my favorite books and films are always secretly letters, too.

The epistolary is exactly the place where Toto’s father would forbid Toto to be, and yet Puig ends the novel with a letter from the patriarch himself. There in that degraded space of feelings, tears, subjectivity: for the first time we get to see what circumstances might have made a man like Berto.

The letter to his brother is full of emotional stops and starts (“I didn’t tell you this before because why should I give you bad news, and maybe you weren’t interested either, what do you care if I go under? That’s a joke, don’t pay any attention” [219]). Full of apologies and pleas, rambling, anecdotes, gossip. We’re suddenly privy to Berto’s defensiveness about having to rely on his wife’s salary, to his anxiety about having never finished school—and to the dream of the father he wants to be:

“Even if I have to go out and hold people up in the street, I’m going to give him everything he needs so he can study, and get his degree, maybe he’ll think his father’s not good enough for him afterwards.” (221)

Where did Berto’s good intentions encounter the pressure of the world that he lives in? How did the cycles of repression and cruelty that defined his life continue to reproduce themselves? The codes of your world make you, and then you start making those codes yourself.

Berto lays himself bare in the letter, but he never sends it. He says it would cost a fortune to send. Much more than that, to undo his foundational pride: it would cost everything. Making yourself vulnerable always costs everything.

Berto doesn’t send the letter, but Puig does. How can writing open up hidden trajectories so that what might otherwise be ignored, forgotten, thrown away (“This letter is going into the wastepaper basket, I wouldn’t spend a cent on stamps for you”[222]) can still be retrieved? What are the radical gestures that writing can make towards redemption, in the face of betrayal, violence and erasure? Redemption is a cheesy and sentimental word, which is why I think Puig, who is familiar with the gifts of excessive sentimentalism, might like it.

Anyway, what redemption really means is: buying back. This letter costs too much to send, but Puig buys it back. Writing that takes things back. Pulls things out of the trash. Writing that wants to save. Puig sends us Berto’s letter. I’m sending this one back.

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4 thoughts on “Voices for Manuel Puig: a very, very, very late response to March’s reading

  1. Wonderful, Elaine, thank you.

    My one disagreement is that it’s not that late. I’d like to think that these discussions can be recursive when it comes to the book club. My Puig fuse is still burning…

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