Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 18 August 2013



I think that honesty is like a piñata with nothing inside. – Ben Brooks, Lolito

Let’s cut to the chase. No one these days picks up a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 modernist novel Lolita ignorant of the fact they’re going to be reading about the seduction of a twelve-year-old girl by a middle-aged man. Since I’m going to be talking about Lolita quite a bit let’s level the playing field: Lolito is a very British 2013 novel by Ben Brooks in which a fifteen-year-old boy encounters a mature woman on the Internet and ends up agreeing to meet her in the real world for the purpose of having sex. Yes, that’s a spoiler but some things are best spoiled.

What makes something wrong? If you’re a Christian then usually the answer to that question is: If God says it’s wrong then it’s wrong. Lying’s wrong. Stealing’s wrong. Adultery’s wrong. But what if you’re not a practicing Christian? Who says what’s right and wrong? Well tend to we defer to the government. Parking on double yellow lines is wrong. Peeing in public is wrong. Having sex with someone under ‘the age of consent’ is wrong. But what makes these things wrong? Even in Bible times things weren’t as simple as I implied: just ask the Canaanites, the Amalekites the Gibeonites and a load of others races no one hears about any more since the Israelites massacred them. Thou shalt not kill except when God says it’s okay.

There was, of course, no ‘age of consent’ back then. The Bible defined marriage as something that you needed a man and woman for, not a male and a female, and so as it was generally accepted that a girl became a woman when she had her first period so that meant, in theory and in practice, it was okay to marry most girls as soon as they hit puberty and the only consent that was needed was that of the girl’s father. Humbert Humbert would see that as perfectly reasonable:

The median age of pubescence for girls has been found to be thirteen years and nine months in New York and Chicago. The age varies for individuals from ten, or earlier, to seventeen. – Lolita

Kids are nowhere near as ignorant as they used to be. And by that I mean they’re nowhere near as innocent as they used to be. In times past (and not that far in the past) it wasn’t that unusual for a woman to climb into her betrothal bed and know nothing about sex or even where babies came from. If sex was innately horrible no one would want to do it. There’d be laws against it. As it happens sex is usually satisfying, but can run the gamut from terrifying to earth-shatteringly wonderful. Sex in the right circumstances is not wrong. Sex is natural. Kids discover that quite early on and then learn—added bonus—it’s apparently better when there’s two involved. Who’d of thought that? Nowadays kids have sex much, much earlier than they did even in my day—I never even kissed a girl until I was sixteen—and it’s no biggie. Maybe it should be a biggie but for most kids it’s not. They don’t see it as something wrong usually they’re told it’s wrong and then, because someone’s told them it’s wrong (with that perversity that belongs to most teenagers) they want to do it all the more. Making something ‘wrong’ isn’t always a good idea. Look at Eve and the fruit tree.

The protagonist in Ben Brooks’s new novel Lolito is fifteen. He’s called Etgar. And to say that he’s sexually aware is something of an understatement. An innocent he is not. It wasn’t ripped from him. He, like most kids, handed it away without a second thought. It’s okay to have sex with someone under the age of consent if you’re also under the age of consent, especially if you’ve both consented. It’s may not be legal but there’s definitely a bit of a double standard thing going on here. We know we can’t stop them and so we turn a blind eye. They might get shouted at but no one’s calling the cops unless one of the parties is very young. Kids know that smoking and drinking are illegal and yet they go out of their way to experience them. Why not sex? What’s the difference?

Talking about differences what’s the difference between ignorance and innocence? In her dated (but still thought-provoking) essay on the subject Amélie Rives begins as follows:

It seems hardly possible to open this subject, without at first becoming involved in a statement of axioms; for, on reflecting that Ignorance means a want of knowledge, and Innocence, freedom from guilt, purity, this thought at once presents itself —that, while a person, wanting in knowledge, may often be innocent, the very lack of knowledge may as often lead him into guilt.

And, conversely, that while another, thoroughly instructed in what guilt means, may of his free will indulge in, or refrain from, wrong-doing, the fact of such knowledge on his part, in no way affects the innocence of his nature, or actions, when according to his ideas of right and wrong he has done what he considers to be right.[1] (bold mine)

She ends with:

To those who consider that a lack of knowledge constitutes innocence, and therefore imply that an embroidered flower is more truly innocent than any thinking child can ever be, no matter what the amount of restraint exercised over its reason and curiosity, these views can hardly seem judicious, but at least I venture to hope that there are many who will agree with me in my belief that Innocence is only in the highest sense worthy and useful when it is the result of choice, not of accident.[2] (bold mine)

Does Etgar know that drinking alcohol is illegal? This is how the book opens:

We’re fifteen and drinking warm cider under the cathedral grounds’ pine trees. It’s seven-thirty.

He’s with his friends, Sam and Aslam and Alice:

Alice is my girlfriend. She has a sharp nose, size four feet and Raynaud’s Syndrome. In the morning her mouth tastes of stale milk. I imagine her recent search history: how to make an Ouija board, does anal hurt, Haruki Murakami.

She tells him she and her family are going away on holiday over the Easter break. To Antigua. Aslam doesn’t know what Antigua is but Etgar knows what he’s going to do while she’s away:

I want to remain in bed, watching documentaries about exotic marine life and sporadically masturbating over shopping channel presenters. I want to call Alice three times a day for reassurance that she’s not putting her mouth against the mouths of people who aren’t me.

It’s a plan. His parents will be away too. They’re going to Russia. Why Russia? I’m assuming a nod to Nabokov (pronounced Na-BOW- (as in bow and arrow) cough) who was Russian. That said Etgar’s not an especially Russian name; it is popular with Israelis apparently.

The plan starts of as, well, as planned. He talks to Alice and then looks up things in the Internet (the spelling and punctuation are not perfect):

        Elliot Trump has uploaded new pictures.
Katya De Vangelo has got John Gordon-Levitt, popcorn and rosé ready for a night in with the girlies.
        Carly Yates thinks that some people can just fuck off.
        Horney milf wants you’re cum
        Sentence: ass raping til death
        Dirty brit amateur swingers fuck in woods
        A man and a woman are sitting side by side on thrones. They are wearing crowns and medieval clothing. The woman says she wants King Dick to come back because her vagina is lonely. The man next to her says he is Prince Dick and he gently presses her thigh as she bites into a turkey leg. She shouts for the archery competition to begin. Amundsen [Etgar’s dog, named after the Norwegian explorer] wanders back into my room, sniffs at nothing and lies down on the rug. Three men in medieval clothing pull out their dicks and start fiercely masturbating while aiming at a target ten feet away. I feel confused. I don’t understand.
        Carrie Machell is in a relationship.
        I have won a free Macbook.
        I take the sock off my dick and throw it at Amundsen.

Why’s he confused? What doesn’t he understand? When I talked to my contact at Canongate about how I was thinking about approaching the review—not that I was asking permission, I was just mentioning—she said, that Etgar “has a very young naïve streak, which I think is indicative of the fact that you can’t put a number on maturity, and there are different levels of it.” Okay so we have innocence, ignorance and now immaturity to factor in. Maturity comes in different flavours—emotional, physical, mental—and it’s pretty obvious that despite the fact his body is ready for sex and his mind is reasonably well-informed about what can count as sex he’s still lacking when it comes to an emotional appreciation of what sex can be about. It can be about orgasms. Mostly at that age that’s all it’s about. It’s about clearing your mind for an hour or two so you can think about other things. It’s something to do to break the boredom of everyday life that doesn’t cost money.

The GraduateLolita is a funny book. Lolito is a funny book. The Graduate is a funny film. Just because all of them deal with the “seduction of the innocent” (to quote Fredric Wertham out of context) is by the by. All three are funny and all three are tragic. You might say paedophilia (or, perhaps more correctly, hebephilia in the case of Lolita and ephebophilia in the case of Lolito) is no laughing matter but there’s a funny side to most things if you look hard enough. Humour is often cruel and if you have a victim deserving of a measure of cruelty then it’s all the easier to make fun of him. How many jokes have been told involving Adolf Hitler and he’s a far more deserving case than anyone else mentioned in this article. What we also have to remember is that Humbert Humbert, Macy (the woman Etgar ends up with) and Mrs Robinson are works of fiction: no children were harmed in the writing of these novels.

As Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate is almost twenty-one, although questionably, the only thing criminal about Mrs Robinson’s actions is the adultery (and it’s been a long time since anyone was shocked over an act of infidelity) because the age of consent was eighteen by then and had been since the 1920s (prior to that, and in a lot of American states it was 10, can you believe?) but he was still a bit naïve. I mention The Graduate because of a comment made by Matt Haig about Lolito:

Lolito is really something else. A twisted age-gap love story that is deadpan and grubby and strangely poetic and funny and wrong and also very right. It us like how The Graduate would have ended up if Dustin Hoffman had watched a lot of Loose Women and drank Strongbow and spent too much time on the internet.

There was no Internet when Charles Webb wrote his 1963 novel The Graduate and such a thing was no less unimaginable in Nabokov’s day but then what about this scene? A reflection in a rectangular frame. What does this quote from Lolita remind you of?

It happened for instance that from my balcony I would notice a lighted window across the street and what looked like a nymphet in the act of undressing before a co-operative mirror. Thus isolated, thus removed, the vision acquired an especially keen charm that made me race with all speed toward my lone gratification.

Is there any difference really between Humbert’s act of voyeurism and Etgar looking at porn on the Internet? One might even argue that Etgar’s is the lesser offence because the likelihood is that those he’s watching know it’s happening and are willing participants. I think Nabokov would’ve liked the Internet—Humbert certainly would but we need to be careful not to confuse the two—because he was fond of the concept of the avatar. Often he makes cameos in his books carefully hiding behind what we would think of today as a user name: case in point, in Lolita the character of Vivian Darkbloom is actually an anagram for “Vladimir Nabokov.” Vivian is Clare Quilty's writing partner; Clare is male, Vivian is a female. Lolita tries to confuse Humbert by telling him that Vivian is a man and that Clare Quilty is a woman. And people pretending to be something they’re not happens all the time on the Internet which is why Macy, who had originally introduced herself to Etgar as ‘Hattie’, ends up sending him a short video clip to prove she’s not a man.

What drives Etgar online in the first place? A falling out with his girlfriend Alice. He’s looking (in part) to recapture what he’s lost, what he feels has been taken from him. Not sure if that’s love but I suppose when I was fifteen sex equalled love. Why would someone let me—not that anyone did—make out with them if they didn’t love me? Humbert is also looking to recapture something lost: his feelings for a girl named Annabel Leigh:

When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time; but today, in September 1952, after twenty-nine years have elapsed, I think I can distinguish in her the initial fateful elf in my life. We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open, and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.

One thing Nabokov was keen to point out was that anyone who purchased a copy of Lolita hoping to be titillated would be disappointed. From the book’s foreword:

Viewed simply as a novel, Lolita deals with situations and emotions that would remain exasperatingly vague to the reader, had their expression been etiolated by means of platitudinous evasions. True: not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work. Indeed, the robust Philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel will be quite shocked by their absence here.

The same cannot be said for Lolito. Expletives abound and the sex is described graphically. Some might say ‘pornographically’ (“the copulation of clichés”[3] to quote Nabokov on the subject) but I’ll stick with ‘graphically’. Here, for example, are a few lines from Lolita:

Age of Innocence[The classroom] was smelly, with a sepia print of Reynolds’ “Age of Innocence” above the chalkboard, and several rows of clumsy-looking pupil desks. At one of these, my Lolita was reading … and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly [Lolita] just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk. Oh, stupid and reckless of me, no doubt, but after the torture I had been subjected to, I simply had to take advantage of a combination that I knew would never occur again.

Now a few lines from Lolito and, I should make this clear, this takes place before Etgar gets involved with the older woman online:

        ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Is there anything you want to try that we haven’t?’
         ‘Like what?’ I pictured Alice choking me, hitting me and flailing me. I pictured Mum visiting me in hospital, tutting and saying ‘kids these days’ to a patronising nurse who quickly leaves the room to dial Social Services. ‘No hitting.’
         ‘I didn’t mean hitting.’
         ‘What then?’
         ‘I watched a golden shower thing the other day. The guy had like goggles on and she did it on his face.’
        I laughed. ‘I don’t know. Is that funny or disgusting?’
         ‘No. I don’t know. There were like things I didn’t like before you. So maybe.’
        She lifted her head off my lap.
         ‘Like what?’
         ‘Like tits. Also eating out.’
         ‘Don’t call it that.’
         ‘What do I call it?’
         ‘I don’t know.’
         ‘Eating clams.’
         ‘No eating.’
         ‘Prawn cocktail.’
         ‘I’m breaking up with you,’ she said. ‘Unless we try it.’


        She pulled down her pants, threw them onto the toilet seat and lifted one leg up and over me. ‘Where should I make it go?’

Watersports are classified as a paraphilia. That Etgar would agree to participate in this (which some might regard as an act of humiliation) does say something about his character; he’s pliable. The woman online doesn’t have to groom him over months—as happens in the case of Lolita—and within a couple of days he’s agreed to meet her in the real world after already having had cybersex with her a couple of times. The events in Lolita drag on over a couple of years. The main events in Lolito take place over a single weekend. But I guess that’s life in the modern world.

There are problems with both books. In Lolita we don’t get to see the girl except through Humbert’s eyes, although there are times when what he says is quite revealing:

I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her—after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred—I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave grey eyes more vacant than ever—for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation)—and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again—and "oh, no," Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure—all would be shattered.

What was she really thinking? She’s compliant and it’s really only Humbert’s possessiveness that ultimately drives her away. Is there a point when she becomes guilty too?

In our hallway, ablaze with welcoming lights, my Lolita peeled off her sweater, shook her gemmed hair, stretched towards me two bare arms, raised one knee. “Carry me upstairs, please. I feel sort of romantic tonight.”

Once Lolita has lost her innocence we see a change in her and she does become more controlling; she’s well aware of the power she has over Humbert and isn’t beyond manipulating him.

Ben Brooks only lets us see things through the eyes of the boy so we learn little about his (legally at least) abuser but, here too, there are a few insights:

        Macy’s upper arms and chest are dotted with purple bruises the size of ramekins. She looks at me looking at them. She doesn’t say anything. I press a thumb against a dark spot on her ribs and gently trace the outline of it, wondering if it’s possible to feel physical pain in that many places at once.
         ‘Did you get mugged too?’ I say.
         ‘Kind of,’ she says.
         ‘Did you get mugged by your husband?’
         ‘Let’s get breakfast. You’ll be ill if you don’t put something in your stomach.’
         ‘You don’t want to talk about your husband.’
         ‘No, I don’t.’ She winces and moves back to the bed, pulling on her hoodie and putting up the hood. She sits down. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says, putting her arms out in a come and touch me way. ‘I don’t want to talk about him. He’s not here.’
         ‘I know,’ I say. I climb into her lap and put my head against her tits. ‘I’m sorry too. I want to be your husband. I want us to live in a tree house.’

What’s going on in the woman’s head? Is her husband a wife beater? Would it be okay if he were? Would that excuse her in some way? Humbert’s account is a defence—“you took advantage of my disadvantage”—but Etgar merely recounts what goes on and how he feels about it:

The word debauchery hangs in my head. I wonder if I’m debauched of if Macy is. I definitely don’t feel debauched. I feel lost and quietly panicked.

coverOn someone called Nikki wrote, “I'm on the last 20 pages of Lolita, and once again finding myself in utter amazement and full of love for Nabokov's words. This is the greatest love story ever written.” She’s not the first to use those exact words. Lionel Trilling also called it “the greatest love story of our time”; the quote is used on the covers of some editions. In the preface to The Annotated Lolita Alfred Appel, Jr. says, “Lolita is surely the most allusive and linguistically playful novel in English since Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939)” and he’s right. To illustrate, Nabokov laboured for a month on a single fairly inconsequential sentence (which he himself reckoned would “be skimmed over or not noticed”[4]):

In Kasbeam a very old barber gave me a very mediocre haircut: he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, and, at every explodent, spat into my neck, and every now and then wiped his glasses on my sheet-wrap, or interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce faded newspaper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to realize as he pointed to an easeled photograph among the ancient grey lotions, that the moustached young ball player had been dead for the last thirty years.

In that respect it is a beautiful novel and it’s easy to fall in love with the prose and lose perspective: shit no matter how eloquently described is still shit. Brooks, on the other hand, although his wordplay is often clever, is no match for Nabokov. Few are. I’m not. But Brooks cons us in his own way. His book is cheeky and irreverent and doesn’t seem to take anything seriously for long. So Amundsen craps on the living room floor. So what?

I can’t say I was shocked when I learned that Etgar was fifteen. But what if Etgar had been Etrina? We definitely view the sexes differently. It’s the old story: a young man is out sowing wild oats; the female equivalent is a slut. Should I have been shocked? It is a criminal offense after all. Maybe I should’ve been but I wasn’t. Partly because I know it’s all made up but mostly because if I’d been fifteen and had the chance to have sex with an older woman I can’t pretend I wouldn’t have been tempted. I wouldn’t have seen it as a crime. It would have been an opportunity.

But is Lolito a love story? Etgar’s a poet—as was Humbert actually—and here’s one of his poems:

Macy Poem #1
In the event of a zombie apocalypse
in which you were a zombie
my plan would be
to eat three bars of Galaxy
drink six cups of tea
and lie somewhere
clearly visible
but vaguely comfortable
and not try to decapitate you
or stop you from infecting me
with zombie virus.

Okay it’s not a very good poem but what I noticed once I made this connection is the other correlations I could find between Lolita and Lolito, but in most cases the link is between Etgar and Humbert. Humbert is a kid on the inside. He’s living in a fairy tale of his own construction and so is Etgar. All that stuff about going to live in a tree house for example: pure fantasy.

There’s also an odd scene in Lolito—I thought it odd anyway—when Macy takes Etgar to, of all things, a gay bar and then vanishes for a while leaving this young man to fend off advances on his own. Nabokov was a homophobe whose own gay brother apparently scared the living daylights out of him. It’s not exactly a major theme in Lolita but it is important to Humbert—who thinks he looks like a film star anyway (although I don’t think he had James Mason in mind)—that he’s not gay:

The boyish qualities of a nymphet tempt the reader into interpreting Humbert’s quest as essentially homosexual, but we may be less absolute in our judgment and practice of pop psychoanalysis when Humbert tells how during one of his incarcerations he trifled with psychiatrists, “teasing them with fake ‘primal scenes.’ ” “By bribing a nurse I won access to some files and discovered, with glee, cards calling me ‘potentially homosexual’ .”[5]

Humbert, by my reading, is pleased that he’s put one over on the doctors, that he’s hidden his true self.

I’m not saying that Etgar feels a strong need to prove his heterosexuality but I would be curious to learn what was going through Brooks’ head when he inserted this chapter into the proceedings since all it does is (unnecessarily) delay the two of them having sex.

Gay, of course, has changed in meaning over the years and now rather than ‘bright’ or ‘homosexual’ ‘gay’, at least among kids Etgar’s age, means ‘lame’ and a couple of times in the book it’s thrown out as an insult. Perhaps I’m reaching.

Humbert also becomes rougher and rougher with Lolita as the book progresses—partly due to the drink (Etgar also drinks to excess)—and he does hurt her:

She would mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom, whereas I, using for my desperately detached comments an artificial tone of voice that set my own last teeth on edge, provoked my audience to such outbursts of rudeness as made any further conversation impossible, oh my poor, bruised child.

Etgar doesn’t hit Macy but someone has—remember the bruises in the quote above—and so it’s hard not to think of her as a grownup Lolita. Lolita, of course, dies in the book—at eighteen during childbirth—but what if she had lived? It’s the old story of the abused becoming the abuser. It’s too easy to tar and feather Macy without knowing the full story.

The bottom line is that things get quite muddy by the end of the book. I’m not going to tell you how it ends and I apologise for spoiling Lolita for any of you if you intend to read it in the future but the fact is that Nabokov lets that cat out of the bag in the book’s self-penned (under the name John Ray) foreword—but I do think there’s more to Lolito than I’ve been able to get out of it from a single read. At the end of Lolita Humbert says:

This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies.

In the final chapter of Lolito Etgar is sitting with his mum in the garden when she plucks “a green insect” off her forearm. Maybe I am reading into it but it’s impossible to read a novel called Lolito without recalling Lolita and it will always sit in its shadow. As for whether Lolito is a good book in its own right, I think it is. It made me think. I made me sit through three hours of Yale lectures[6] on Lolita and a BBC documentary[7]. Lolita is dated. The book is dated. The first film is certainly dated. The questions it raises are more relevant now than ever. Lolito is interesting and relevant because it deals with a problem that doesn’t perhaps get the amount of attention it ought, like husband beating, for example.

TadpoleA similar situation is dealt with in the 2000 film Tadpole in which a fifteen-year-old boy falls in love with his stepmother, Eve, (played by Sigourney Weaver and so totally understandable). He doesn’t have sex with her but he does with his mother’s friend and his parents just shrug it off. The film got a PG-13 certificate in the States and a 15 certificate in the UK. Based on 106 reviews collected by the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 77% of critics gave the film a positive review. The whole abuse thing was carefully side-stepped by most people:

Oscar believes his stuffy, history professor dad is insensitive to Eve's needs and decides that, regardless of the obvious obstacles, he's going to win her love during his visit home, hoping to impress her with his charming manner, his knowledge of philosophy, and his ability to speak French. This plan is slightly derailed when he has an unexpected sexual encounter with Eve's fun-loving best friend, the also-40-year-old Diane. – John R. McEwen, The Republican

Unfortunately for the young ladies Oscar also has an obsession with his stepmother, Eve (Sigourney Weaver). Currently being ignored by the boy’s workaholic history professor dad (John Ritter), Oscar believes he can give the woman what she needs. As it turns out, he’s just as like to give Eve’s best friend Diane (Bebe Neuwirth) what she needs. Hilarity and adolescent confusion ensue. – Ron Wells, Film Threat

“Hilarity and adolescent confusion ensue.” Indeed. Harold and Maude it was not. Now that was a love story.

Bottom line then: If you’ve read this far then you know what you’re letting yourself in for if you decide to pick up a copy of either Lolita or Lolito. Both will make you think. Ben Brooks made me think that I’m glad I was fifteen in 1974 rather than now. I’m not actually that crazy about being fifty-four right now.


[1] Amélie Rives, ‘Innocence versus Ignorance’, The North American Review, Vol. 155, p.287

[2] Ibid, p.292

[3] Vladimir Nabokov ‘On a Book Entitled Lolita’

[4] Ibid

[5] Alfred Appel, Jr., ‘The Artifice of Lolita’, The Annotated Lolita

[6] Open Yale Courses: ‘English 291: The American Novel Since 1945’, lectures five, six and seven.

[7] How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?, BBC4, originally aired on 13 December 2009

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