Review: Sekigahara (2017)

It was with pleasure I noted during the opening scenes of this film that it is based on a book by Ryotaro Shiba, a true favourite of mine amongst writers. It was even better, therefore, that the movie jumped to a scene where the author narrated a story about the meeting of Ishida Mitsunari and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. These original scenes piqued my interest and turned this into a thrilling story which continued in a similar way. Continue reading “Review: Sekigahara (2017)”

Review: Ryoma! Volume I, Ryotaro Shiba

Rating: 5 out of 5

I have been a fan of the writings of Mr Shiba for nearly a decade now — and I was overjoyed when I saw that yet another of his books had been translated into English (or, well, the first volume of one of his books…). That was the beginning of my story of reading ‘Ryoma!’, the first volume of which details the early years of a figure who was to feature very strongly in the politics of 1860’s — the end of the first volume sees the reader through to that decade in a very colourful description of Sakamoto Ryoma’s formative years. Continue reading “Review: Ryoma! Volume I, Ryotaro Shiba”

“55 Bookish Questions…”

With regards to not posting for a while, a few more general ones will do fine is my reasoning and since I did promise that I’d answer these book-questions to a friend of mine I thought to begin with them.

As a short introduction, it seems to be a list of 55 questions that can then provide some sort of insight (for others, that is) to one’s reading habits. The one my friend filled in (a disastrous 12 days ago which is also how long it has taken me to get this far) is located over here – ‘Logic Tree: 55 Bookish Questions’.

Here I go.

1. Favorite childhood book?
‘Talks with a Tiger’ by Donald Bisset.

2. What are you reading right now?
Unfortunately, this is a mess as always for me. The names I need to mention are A.C. Clarke’s ‘Cradle’, J.Campbell’s ‘Guardian’, J. Barr’s ‘A Line in the Sand’, and last but not least an indomitable book on Bismarck that is there in case I just want to hit myself on the head with something. Oh, and I’ve just started rereading ‘Lord of the Rings’ as well.

3. What books do you have on request at the library?
None. I don’t really have a good enough schedule for libraries.

4. Bad book habit?
Buying a few too many and then stacking them up so that they wait to be read.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library?
Nothing. As above on the libraries.

6. Do you have an e-reader?
Yes, a Kindle Touch.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once?
One on my Kindle and one on paper, but it just doesn’t work out.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?
Not really. I may make the occasional effort of posting authors who are not as well know as they should, but aside from that, not really.

9. Least favorite book you read this year (so far?)
I haven’t come across anything that horrible this year, but I did score something rather low on Goodreads. That would have been… ‘Black Wind’ by Clive Cussler. I generally really like his books but this one wasn’t quite up to the standards I’ve come to expect.

10. Favorite book you’ve read this year?
I finally had the chance to take a look at Haruki Murakami’s ‘1Q84’ and that was certainly worth it. Ryotaro Shiba’s ‘Drunk as a Lord’ came by me early this year as well, so those two are probably at the top of the list.

11. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?
Probably a fair bit of the time.

12. What is your reading comfort zone?
The sci-fi I know and have read before, including the Star Wars books I have.

13. Can you read on the bus?
Yep, and a very good way to spend the time.

14. Favorite place to read?

15. What is your policy on book lending?
“I only lend to close friends and those that I know will take care of books.”

16. Do you ever dog-ear books?
Very rarely…

17. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?
No, but I want to. There’s just so very little to add.

18. Not even with text books?
No, not really.

19. What is your favorite language to read in?
 Depends on what language the author wrote in. Reading English and Estonian means I have a small leeway in choosing a hopefully better translation for a German, Russian, or French author.

20. What makes you love a book?
A story that I cannot guess, characters that feel real, and people for whose fates I want to care. And, a world that brings me in and keeps me there is also a good addition.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book?
Knowing the person and what they might read. Or rather then, what I would have liked to read if I were where they are, assuming I can put myself into a situation like this. But I am also afraid of recommending books because what if the people won’t like them…

22. Favorite genre?
Fantasy/science-fiction and naval histories.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)
Non-fiction, aside from history. I should probably read more scientific things as well.

24. Favorite biography?
I think that at the present moment I would have to venture the thought of Alan Sked’s look on the Austrian Field Marshal Johan Radetzky von Radetz. That book had a tone to itself.

25. Have you ever read a self-help book?
Hmmh, I think I have. I would be hard pressed to name them though. I think it might also depend on what exactly is classified as a “self-help” book (I’ve certainly read philosophical insights into oneself and how to do things ‘properly’ which might not quite be the regular type of this genre assuming it is this genre at all).

26. Favorite cookbook?
None. I don’t have cookbooks.

27. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?
‘The Glorious First of June’ by Sam Willis, and ‘Captain Vancouver’ by E.C. Coleman.

28. Favorite reading snack?
Tea. Occasionally bread or chocolate.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.
Harry Potter books, I would think.

30. How often do you agree with critics about a book?
Sometimes, yes. More often than not, I don’t.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?
If I didn’t like what I read, there was a reason, and I would hope to bring that reason out in a review of mine. I am not just saying that something was bad, but there was something which made it bad for me. And I would rather have people know of what that was so they can think of whether the same device will ruin their read.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?

33. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?
I think that taking into account the times, this would have been Hesse’s ‘Siddharta’. It changed so much.

34. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?
I generally don’t like starting many new series, just because I think I might like them if they turn out good at all. But I can’t think of any specific books right now.

35. Favorite Poet?
JRR Tolkien or Saigyo. It depends on the mood I’m in, and what kind of poems I’m looking for.

36. How many books do you usually have checked out of the library at any given time?

37. How often have you returned book to the library unread?
A few times, I guess.

38. Favorite fictional character?
Maybe Gandalf. There’s so much speaking for him. But maybe there’s someone else I like better. I can’t really say.

39. Favorite fictional villain?
Darth Bane is a badass. There are not very many proper villains in the books I read though.

40. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?
Whatever I want at that moment.

41. The longest I’ve gone without reading.
“I have absolutely no idea!”

42. Name a book that you could/would not finish.
‘Exile’ by Jakob Ejersbo. I did give it a scathing review on this very same blog though. 🙂 And I did get around 20% through before I gave up and decided not to kill my head with it.

43. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?
When I’m into a book, it is difficult to distract me.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?
I have to admit ‘Lord of the Rings’ was done pretty well, although I might not call it a favourite. I can’t think of others right now though so….

45. Most disappointing film adaptation?
‘Eragon’. Horribly done.

46. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?
Probably around £30.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it?
I sometimes take a look inside but I don’t really skim it. Just look at a few interesting locations.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?
If reading it is bringing mental aggravation (also why I stopped reading ‘Exile’, mentioned above).

49. Do you like to keep your books organized?
Yes. But it isn’t happening.

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?
Keep, keep, keep. Build me a library…

51. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?

52. Name a book that made you angry.
I don’t think I can name a book like that.

53. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?
Before having read anything else of Mr Tolkien, I was given ‘The Hobbit’. And never would I have thought that I would like it. But I did. So very much. 🙂

54. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?
I thought I would like ‘The Ionian Mission’ by Patrick O’Brian better than I did. I am not quite sure why that wasn’t the case though.

55. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?
Tolkien, Clarke and Ryotaro Shiba.

‘The Tatar Whirlwind’, Ryotaro Shiba

I managed to finally finish Mr Shiba’s ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’ on Friday — given that I started the book in late September/ early October, this seems like a very long time. All of this time can be explained reasonably well though, and it is also a factor bringing out the best and the worst in this book.

I’ll start with the thought that this is an incredibly detailed work. The setting is early seventeenth century Japan and China where we observe the journeys of an “emissary” of the Hirado domain to the to-be Qing dynasty. As is typical of the author, a large part of work seems to have gone into the research to make the book historically accurate as well as linguistically coherent. The number of Chinese (and Jurchen, and Korean) characters that come up in the book is quite considerable, and insofar as possible there is an overview of what the person was and how his life was spent up to the point where he (or she) was encountered in the story. This leads the writer off on a number of spirals, but I find them rather interesting — plus, the additional detail only adds to the value of the work.

The main setback of this novel is that the translation is incredibly poor — at least compared to the excellent standard set by Juliet Winters Carpenter in translating ‘Saka no ue no kumo’ and ‘Saigo no Shōgun’, this book as seen in the words of Joshua A. Fogel is nowhere near what I was expecting. Namely, what I find is that though paragraphs themselves are still coherent and have a nice flow, the same is often broken between paragraphs by a change of thought that is too abrupt.

As a bigger problem, this book was originally published as a serialized novel. The translator does not seem to have gone through very much effort to get rid of the marks of serialization leading to rather severe repetitions only a few pages over from when some things were mentioned originally. While I see the wish to remain true to the original version, I do have to say that some things could be cut by common sense. I find it hard to believe that the book read well to Mr Fogel in English in the present state.

The above is also why it took me that long to read: I found it easiest to actually try to forget some of what had just occurred since no doubt it would be mentioned again, so that picking ‘The Tatar Whirlwind’ up after a few days since I’d last read it turned into a viable reading method. This doesn’t sound like the best of ideas, but I had no wish to return to the book too soon — until the ending was in sight and the story quickened up quite a bit.

Once interesting device Mr Shiba has used in this book a bit more than in previous ones is explaining what his characters are saying. Yes, he does that elsewhere where the meaning is hidden, but quite probably since we’re now dealing with China and the Chinese culture, there is far more of the hidden language taunting/hinting than before (as a bad example, this would not be unlikely to happen in the book: one character says to the other: “This spring is beautiful, is it not?” as an implication that the other was cowardly and ran too fast to see the budding leaves — mind you, this  “example” I’ve concocted entirely on my own so as I said before it is a severely lacking although in the same general category).

If the above hasn’t made you want to not read it yet, I’d say go ahead: the historicity of the work makes it worth going through for anyone interested in Mr Shiba’s work or the period in Northern China.

The Works of Ryotaro Shiba

I have found Ryotaro Shiba to be an entirely compelling writer. There is just one problem: accessibility. His writings were all originally in Japanese, and no major publishing company has invested heavily into translating all of his works. And I could find no comprehensive listing in English which would give a good overview of what we can find translated into European languages. Insofar as I think that it would be a good idea to have something along those lines, I decided to compose this post here.

The largest number of his works that have been translated have been into English. The following listing is as far as I know accurate although I have not looked very much into his travel writings.

  • Clouds Above the Hill: A Historical Novel of the Russo-Japanese War
    Original Title: Saka no ue no kumo
    Translated very recently, with only the first two volumes published in late 2012 and the last two in late 2013. Therefore, this entire work can be found in English at present.
  • The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu
    Original Title: Saigo no Shōgun
    This was the book which introduced me to Shiba’s historic journalism, and I believe it remains the most widely accessible book of his in English (and translated to the greatest number of other languages).
  • Kukai the Universal: Scenes from His Life
    Original Title: Kukai no fukei
    This book is again part of my collection, so it is definitely there. Finding it was difficult though so I am not certain how easily accessible it is. There’s a fair bit of information on it, and it looks like something which could easily go back into print if there was demand so that’s that.
  • Drunk as a Lord
    Original Title: Yotte soro
    A collection of four short stories, I found it difficult to get hold of a copy of this book but managed. Seems to have been translated the longest time ago, but that has not necessarily helped its spread.
  • The Heart Remembers Home
    Original Title: Kokyō bōjigataku sōro
    Now this is a problematic one: there is a reference to this book that I found on the cover of ‘Drunk as a Lord’. My searches have indicated that it does exist, but it would seem that the original print was rather limited. It does seem to exist on eBay though so I would expect there to be a number of copies in circulation. I am, however, unsure whether we are dealing with a historical novel or a travel writing although I have located the book in the Library of the Congress listings.
  • The Tatar Whirlwind: A Novel of Seventeenth-Century East Asia
    Original Title: Dattan shippuroku
    And translated in the last decade, this seems fairly accessible and was the second book I discovered when I looked into whatever else could be found by Mr Shiba in English.

French is, as far as I know, another language into which a few of his works have been translated. I have been able to find out about the following:

  • Kukai the Universal
    Now, I know I have used the English title here but that is singularly because while I see a report that this should have been translated into French, I cannot find the French edition for sale on any site. This could be due to me not knowing where to look, so I’m assuming that this has been translated as the [Japanese Literature Publishing Project] JLPP site claims.
  • Le Dernier Shogun: [The Last Shogun]
  • Hideyoshi, seigneur singe
    Original Title: Shinshi Taikōki
    I have ordered this book and will try to read it even though my grasp of French isn’t as great as it should be.
  • Tokugawa Ieyasu, shôgun suprême
    Original Title: Haō no ie
    The exact same comment as the above title.

I wonder if the French have any plans to translate any other titles in the near future, given that they seem to have the greatest number of translated titles after English. Interestingly enough the titles that have been translated are very different, so it might be worth further investigation why that is so.

And I know that German boasts at least one:

  • Der letzte Shogun: [The Last Shogun]

I also have seen that there should be one translation into Russian, but that seems to be a travel book: «О России. Изначальный облик севера». I am not entirely sure that I can classify that one as a travel book, but that’s my best guess at present. Similarly, I am not certain that there’s nothing else of Shiba’s to be found in Russian.

‘The Last Shogun’ also seems to be translated into Indonesian, and I thought I saw there also existed a Portugese version. This last bit of information may be wrong, please don’t quote me on that.

And this is where an overview of his translated works must finish — as I said above, I have ignored the presence or absence of the travel writings in English even though I noted that they might exist in Russian. I have no definitive information of any travel writings in English, but I have not looked into the matter as thoroughly as I would like since my main interest lies in the historical novels. At some point, I might increase the scope of what I would like to look at though.

However, I am sure that you’ll agree that overall too few of the works of this masterful writer have been translated. We truly could use more of Mr Shiba’s works in our languages! =)

EDIT, 19/02/2013: Added the original title to ‘The Heart Remembers Home’.
EDIT, 24/01/2014: Added information on the last two volumes of ‘Clouds Above the Hill’.

‘Drunk as a Lord’, Ryotaro Shiba

As is quite apparent from my previous writings, I am quite an avid reader of anything that Mr Shiba has had published in English (or rather, that other establishments have published since most of it has been posthumous). ‘Drunk as a Lord’ appeared as a book that was very difficult to obtain until I managed to obtain it, and that is the main reason why it has taken me so long to find and finish the book.

This here then is a collection of four short stories, all written in Mr Shiba’s amazing style that has been described by others as historic journalism. The stories here concern four different daimyos of the end of the Tokugawa period. We meet the lords of Tosa (Yamauchi Toyoshige), Satsuma (Shimazu Tadayoshi), Uwajima (Date Munenari), and Saga (Nabeshima Naomasa). The stories concerning these are all different in character: the Lord of Tosa is characterised through his actions leading up to the Restoration where he tried to play an active part; the domain of Satsuma is portrayed in contrast to Tadayoshi’s brother who was a most competent person; Uwajima’s dreams are written of through the point of view of a lowly craftsman who was assigned to build a steamship; and Saga is brought to live amidst the secrecy that the daimyo established there.

My favourite story might have been the one of Saga which though shortest had an element in it which made every moment interesting. Likewise, the lord there was a wise man who could see where the times would go, and it is interesting to see what he made of that. The tale of Yamauchi Toyoshige is compelling in its own right for we see a man who tries to be important and to make a name for himself. The building of a steam ship is rather interesting to read about for Japan had no industrial base of any sort nor did they have a knowledge of how to build one. And lastly, Satsuma’s story is a classic tale of how greed destroys realms — or, at least, that is how I see it.

We are also given an insight into the poetic qualities of any of these people, and I might just bring up two, firstly the Lord of Saga’s poem when he gave his work up and let the future be guided by other people:

When blossoms bloom over his head
It is fitting that an aged man
Should blush for shame.

And I will just finish by quoting Toyoshige:

Yesterday, drinking south of the bridge; today, drunk north of it.
While there is saké, let me drink it till I’m drunk.
The many-floored pavilions stand near the bridge.
I stain my inner eye; the broad sky overarches
Where my native home looks out on southern seas.
I see the billows pound the belly of the rocks.
The spectacle is grand but lacks the charms of the scene here.
I turn around to call for saké, but already it has come.
Is this not delight, drinking to one’s heart’s content?
It is said that the superior man takes virtue to extremes.
The common people cannot understand the drinking man’s true heart.
When I think of going home, the lights along the parapet glow bright still.
North of the bridge, south of the bridge, I hear the strains of the samisen.


‘Clouds above the Hill’, Ryotaro Shiba [Volumes I and II]

A small island nation was about to enter a period of great cultural change.

I believe that one of the best things that happened this year in the world of literature might have been the finalization of the translation of the two first volumes of Ryotaro Shiba’s monumental work on the Russo-Japanese War. Although I was firstly stunned by the price of these creatures (I managed to get them at a discounted £35 each) I would kindly offer the opinion that they are, at least for me, well worth this money.

Now, I can already foresee a number of people decrying the style in which it is written — for I know that previous translations of Mr Shiba have seen this fate, and I also understand how it might be difficult for a person expecting “easy” reading to encounter this book which needs a continuous thought process for the reader to be able to follow what’s going on. This stems from that the author has not tried to make life any simpler than it was, so the number of names (and numbers, and dates) coming towards the reader is large indeed… but this is exactly the history I like. And it has a narrative story. My one wish right now would be for the same effective beautiful and compelling style to also take its measure against other events (for I am fairly confident that Mr Shiba did indeed cover Japan well enough).

Now, since we are dealing with a historical fiction piece (or, historical journalism, as the translator suggests in the introduction), the outcome of the war is never in doubt. There is something very appealing about a narrative added to a known outcome (the novel ‘Master of Go’ is quite the same in that) for me, and I can’t quite decide what it is. In any case, we are never in doubt that Japan will win and Russia will lose. This is despite the fools and idiots on the Japanese side and the brilliance of the Russians. No one side is definitively superior to the other in every single field. So, how and why did Japan win?

Ryotaro Shiba takes to looking at this question through the general narrative of the story but also by placing into it three people of renown: Masaoka Shiki, a critic of the haiku and waka; Akiyama Yoshifuru, the father of the Japanese cavalry; and Akiyama Saneyuki, brother of Yoshifuru and the person who designed the naval strategy responsible for the victories at sea.

Aside from these, we learn of the Russian, Chinese, and Japanese statesmen and military commanders of the time — a most educational trek into the fields of history, and one well narrated. The gift for details that the author has makes it all the more compelling: for indeed, though I knew of the war and the voyage of the Baltic Fleet beforehand, I had no idea they tried shelling British trawlers over Dogger Bank. This and similar gems along with a criticism we should take most seriously can be found throughout the first two volumes.

My one wish now is that it would be December 2013 and I’d have the Volumes 3 and 4 — they are supposedly out on the 30th November, and as things are I am quite sure I’ll read them the first chance I get after that. I am most confident they will not disappoint me. =)

In the dead of night, there was no moon or stars.

‘Kukai the Universal’, Ryotaro Shiba

Kūkai was born in 774 in Sanuki Province, which faced the central provinces with the easternmost part of the Seto Inland Sea in between. Visitors to what used to be Sanuki Province (present-day Kagawa Prefecture) will surely find their eyes drawn to conical green hills dotted on the spacious plains usually crowned with a bright broad canopy of sea-lit skies that often turn into a grand stage for ever-changing clouds. An attractive setting like this might be a fine cradle for a child dreamer.

I recently managed to finish the most excellent book on the life of Kūkai, or O-Daishi-san. And then I went to Goodreads, and I saw that the score of the book was 2.80. That was based on 5 rankings (which in itself shows that the rankings and scores are quite useless unless you know what you have to check) but I also saw the comments there.

What astonished me (or, rather, amused me, I have to say) was that their main complaint was going into the book and expecting to find something. What they found was thoroughly different, and they didn’t like it. For me, when I went into the book I expected to find one of the finest novels I had seen with more historical truth than most any other novel I had read (for, if I have to bring an example, if Mr Sienkiewicz illustrates without reservation then Mr Shiba would say that he illustrates said point). My only question was that if even the translation was as readable, then what brilliance would the original be!

But to address those comments there, as I feel I have to do…

  • We start out with a notion that Mr Shiba writes historical novels, and then the next part of the same sentence makes me think that this person has not read a single historical novel. Authors as varied as Bernard Cornwell to Stepehen Saylor to whoever really — as long as they write historical novels, they are writing fiction. It is not a secret, so one should not really be surprised if everything does not match “real” history 100%.
  • But… Real history at 100%? How could we possibly even do that for a person who lived for more than sixty years and twelve centuries ago? Could we compile one with no factual information about a person who died yesterday after sixty-two years of life? I doubt that very much.
  • Likewise, it seems interesting that people are reluctant to think that people in the past may have had their faults. Mind you, none of what is said in the book is an actual fault if just an aspect of the characteristic — but I would ascribe that to the Western upbringing and civilizational thought apparent in that sentence — as soon as someone is not entirely pure, say lived five centuries on air and wheat and having actually lived a day, then something is wrong and that person could possibly not be a “saint”.
  • Translations are not meant to be synonymous. I actually took up a bit of looking into the term abhisheka after seeing that comment, and I find nothing particularly wrong with the use of baptism as the translator has done. Sure, it is not ideal — but for what it is, namely, a rite of passage, baptism into _____ suits the purpose of the book perfectly. There could potentially be better words, but in no way was this a damaging translational error.

For the second comment, which looks even more comical to my eyes, I would respond thus:

  • I highly do not believe the comment that he learned nothing new about Kūkai after reading this book. Due to the wide and varied range of sources as well as scope that is drawn upon by Mr Shiba, I simply think that this is a gross misconception on the commentators part.
  • Nor could I ever say that a book written like this one was dry and uninspirational… We see poetry by the Tang officials Kūkai met in China, we hear of the multicultural nature of Chang’an, and the difficulties of sea travel. There are anecdotes and legends put into the story, and retellings of events from Mr Shiba’s travels on Kūkai’s trail. I would hardly say that this all together makes for a “dry” story… “Uninspirational” is probably up as much to the reader as to anyone else — I found the entire biography most enlightening and uplifting!
  • Nowhere did anything about this book actually say that it was going to delve into Kūkai’s influence in Japan. So it didn’t. I find hard to put grievance to the book for something it didn’t say it would do — plus, if you can read between the lines then you can see why people would admire the monk as they did. Maybe it is harder to see why that has remained the same for twelve centuries, but quite probably that comes down to a difference in the Western-Eastern philosophic outlooks as anything else.
  • Again, the book didn’t say that it would be an introduction into Shingon. It was supposed to be a story of Kūkai’s life, and Kūkai did far more than found Shingon.
  • In general, I find most biographies as chronological re-tellings of facts, but that might just be me. One notable exception that I am working my way through is a take on von Bismarck, but even that bases itself very much in time — the difference is made by having people tell the story and the facts have less of a role. The second part of the last sentence comes back to my original point — any facts about someone who lived twelve centuries ago would be difficult to confirm so that there is no doubt in it. For what it is, I believe that most of what is definite is in this book — and we also have a smaller range of legends and stories of mythical origin put in to display the character of the man whose biography we are reading…

This would be my answer to those two distasteful comments — I would say that people should read this book to see how a biography can be written without concerning itself only with the one person but also the times, and how to explain to an unfamiliar audience the complexity of a society nearly fourteen centuries older in its origins (and outlook to life) than our modern 21st century’s globalized (Western) civilization.

To finish, I believe once more a quote:

Jichie took great pains in sending a letter to Qinglong-si temple in Chang’an, China, informing them of his master’s death. This sort of thing had never been done before or since …
… As for his death that occurred “in late spring in 835,”, Jichie wrote:
“The wood has run out, and the fire has died. It was in his sixty-second year…. What grief we have to bear!….”

On receiving this letter, the whole of Qinglong-si temple in Chang’an was struck into silence and everyone, dressed in white, mourned the death of their revered priest.

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