Speak, Memory: Christa Wolf in Los Angeles
By Malcolm ForbesJune 1, 2013
City of Angels by Christa Wolf
ON APRIL 8, 1941, Thomas and Katia Mann moved into a rented house at 740 Amalfi Drive, Pacific Palisades. Mann, in an entry in his Tagebuch, described the place as “white, clean, rustically situated and not impractical, but incompletely furnished.” The Manns took to their adopted country remarkably well: when not traveling, they spent evenings in Hollywood mingling with other German émigrés; Mann, ever fastidious, kept to a strict daytime regimen of writing and walking and enjoying the ocean view from his terrace. And yet despite their newfound idyll — despite having escaped — they couldn’t hide from the constant barrage of bad news the radio brought, updating them and their exiled coterie on Nazi advances in Europe and the wholesale bombing of the Blitz. American intervention looked increasingly unlikely. If the Manns’ spirits were low, we wouldn’t know it from the diary entries and letters that remain, for the most part, upbeat. One letter is of note, though: “Among our palms and lemon trees we live our all too familiar waiting-room life in friendly concourse with […] always the same faces.” At first glance, there is no real hint of trouble in palm-fringed and lemon-tree shaded paradise. Closer scrutiny, however, reveals subtle suggestions of discontent: this new life is merely a transient, “waiting-room” existence; soirees with “always the same faces” less comforting routine and more mechanical, treadmill tedium.
Mann’s compatriot, Christa Wolf, also temporarily called Los Angeles home, during the year she spent as a visiting scholar at the Getty Center in 1992. Mann was there as the Second World War raged; Wolf arrived as the Cold War was fizzling out — a sojourn chronicled in City of Angels (her last work, at this point, to be translated into English: in German, there is a slender swansong called August). And unlike Mann, for Wolf it seems there was nothing “all too familiar” about Los Angeles. She was an East German citizen, and identified as such even after the fall of the Wall — she famously claimed that reunification was in fact “annexation” by both the West German state and the capitalist system — and the incredulous initial observations of the narrator of City of Angels suggest that Wolf experienced a profound culture clash in America. Staring agog at “kilometer-long aisles” of cleaning and beauty products in an enormous drugstore, the narrator can’t help but recall how her grandparents subsisted on Palmolive soap, no bathroom, and a cauldron of hot water. Her accommodation, provided by the research center that hosts her visit, is too big. (“What a waste. A family of four could live here comfortably.”) Consumer choice is tantamount to profligacy. Spaciousness is squandered room. You can take the girl out of the former German Democratic Republic, but, apparently, you can’t take the former German Democratic Republic out of the girl.
City of Angels is in part a novel about Wolf’s stay in Los Angeles, but it is also, and to a greater extent, a meditation on memory, or more specifically on remembering and forgetting, particularly with regard to Wolf’s role as a GDR citizen. During the author’s time in California, the records of the Stasi — Soviet-controlled East Germany’s notoriously repressive intelligence agency — were finally declassified and made accessible to the public. Wolf requested a look into her own files — such an innocuous word in English, she declares, whereas mere mention of the German Akten, a word freighted with bureaucratic menace and hidden implications, brings her out in a cold sweat. These files reveal a nasty surprise: from 1952 to 1962 Wolf was an informant for the secret police. Not only was she spied on by the Stasi, she also spied for them — but Wolf herself had no recollection of this.
In City of Angels, the narrator makes an identical discovery about her own past and is “paralyzed” by the revelation, but once she has accepted the shock and taken in the significance of Perpetrator Files and Victim Files, she is able to dispassionately review her predicament:
If there’s anything I learned in reading these reports, I said, it’s what language can do to the truth. Those files were in the language of the secret police, completely incapable of capturing real life. An insect collector who wants to pin his find has to kill it first; the tunnel vision of the informer unavoidably manipulates what it finds and he soils it with his miserable language. Yes, I told Francesco, that was what I felt: soiled.
But the narrator’s problems are only just beginning. The West German public and media read her files, fillet them for scandal and savage her in print. The New York Times gets in on the act. What follows is a candid depiction of what Wolf’s narrator characterizes as a “psychological crisis” — if not a total breakdown, then a meticulous probing of the working parts that still function in the present and an investigative overhaul into those faulty neural motors that omit pertinent chunks of the past.
City of Angels has been marketed as a novel, which seems a curious categorization given how much of it tallies with Wolf’s own experiences. But to call it “biography” is a step too far, akin to filing away, say, Sebald’s work, with its pages of pictures of real people and places, as “history.” Only Wolf could have told us how much of her book is fiction and how much is fact, but as she is in no position to do so, we will have to go with what it says on the tin. However, this makes reading the book a somewhat bizarre experience. It necessitates a huge suspension of disbelief — a forced, effortful rendering on the reader’s part of real events and, we daresay, feelings, into fictionalized conceits. A central character visits Los Angeles to uncover the identity of a mysterious émigré known only as L. and ends up learning more about herself — but how much of this protagonist-narrator is Christa Wolf, writer, and how much her alter-ego, Christa Wolf, the character who bears her name? Did Wolf feel compelled to call it a novel as a means of dealing with the Kafkaesque horror of both what she unearthed and the dirt that was thrown at her by the media? When truth is dissected and scrutinized yet still feels unreal, when our own memories resemble a palimpsest overlaid with new, dictated and thus foreign remembrances, then the only place we can be is the realm of fiction.
The novel’s full title is City of Angels: Or, The Overcoat of Dr. Freud. The subtitle, which on its own would sound portentous, pretentious, or both, is instead intriguing, snaring our interest after the disappointingly predictable City of Angels. The coat in question — owned by one of Wolf’s colleagues at the research center — is employed metaphorically and given some mileage: “But what if I turned the coat backward?” Wolf ponders. “Inside out? Described my conversion — my con-version, the turning-around — and could stop being intolerant of myself?” Later she imagines herself crawling deeply into it, cocooning herself against hostilities, using it as a mediating prop for another bout of rigorous self-analysis. “Don’t you know that line from Freud: We cannot live without forgetting?” a shrink tells her. “Repressing!” is her comeback. Sporadic mention of Freud, together with Wolf musing on whether she should have a bad conscience makes it tempting to switch Wolf’s supposed “alter-ego” for “superego.” As the unreality swirls and thickens it also becomes hard to resist exchanging Freud’s overcoat for the overcoat of Gogol’s famous short story, a tale also short on answers, and one whose narrator is left to concede, “Puzzling things occur in this world and it is not our job to pass judgment on them.” Not that the ever-inquiring Wolf would pay heed to this. “[R]uthless self-examination is the prerequisite for the right to judge others,” she informs us.
In his Harz Journey, Heinrich Heine wrote, “There is nothing more uncanny than unexpectedly glimpsing one’s own face by moonlight in a mirror.” For Wolf, who deliberately hunts her true reflection, the uncanny is intensified. One of the book’s strengths lies in her continuous, assiduous, and, yes, ruthless self-examination sessions. In a lesser writer’s hands we would dismiss this as angst-ridden soul-searching or cross-eyed navel-gazing, but Wolf’s demons are as intoxicating as the way they are unleashed, and the manner in which they are tamed. She lays herself so bare we feel like rubbernecking pedestrians transfixed by a car-crash, reluctant to pull away. One effective construct she employs is a series of notes-to-self, random, spontaneous jottings that both clear her head and provide food for thought. In one she highlights her fallibility and mocks her attackers, all those “innocent people, with their pure, lacuna-less memory.” Another motif is that of a “tape-recorder of memory” in her head, “running on endless loop and bringing up the same question again and again: How could I have forgotten that?” Quite, we find ourselves answering. “Can someone forget something like that? That they gave me a code name? That I wrote a report?” Her amnesia may seem suspect, but as with Wolf’s insistence on calling this work a novel, we end up taking her at her word for argument’s sake. Wolf’s history is a messy, tangled skein of personal trauma, originated and exacerbated by the dictates of ideology and machinations of dictatorship; had we lived under a similar regime and endured a comparable campaign of browbeating and coercion, might we also have difficulty remembering things that we had, perhaps, tried our best to banish?
Accepting the gaping lacuna in Wolf’s memory, however implausible it is, is one matter; reading her while trying to ignore her politics proves to be more difficult. Wolf wrote like Orwell, her politics ingrained in the prose. Those who find them unpalatable may view the novel as sullied. On the very first page an airport official consults the narrator’s passport. “Germany?” he asks. “Yes. East Germany,” is her reply. And then several lines later: “Are you sure that country exists? —Yes, I am, I said curtly, even though the correct answer would have been No.” This sounds willfully antagonistic, as if Wolf is a bad loser who refuses to adapt to the new state of play (“annexation”). And yet one year earlier, in 1991, Wolf wrote in a letter to Günter Grass, “I loved my country” — the past tense denoting a resigned acceptance that the game is up, the verb casting her exchange with the official in a different light: to Grass she communicates with glowing pride, not petulant defiance.
There are parts of the novel in which the Christa character’s opinions and pronouncements are less ambiguous. She mentions opposing the first Gulf War and writing a letter to the United Nations, urging the organization to do everything within its power to delay the use of military force. When jailed as a dissident for distributing pro-Communist pamphlets in West Berlin she asks for two books to read in her cell — a Russian grammar and Marx’s Capital. A journalist calls her out on why she didn’t revolt against the East German regime, why she had stayed there and why she hadn’t written a book “about the deplorable state of the GDR instead of Cassandra.” The journalist’s first two points are valid criticisms; however, Wolf’s 1983 classic (if opaque) novel about the Trojan prophet is in fact a sustained attack on Stasi persecution, corrupt rule and brutal oppression. What’s more, her reinterpretation of the fall of Troy is her prediction of the demise of the GDR. It is not as overt an allegory as, say, Animal Farm, but an unmistakable strain of condemnation lurks between the lines for those prepared to work at it. And while in City of Angels, Christa admits to not wanting to live in a Greater Germany again, she also shares candid misgivings, which may be the author’s own about her former country’s shortcomings: “Would I really have preferred that smaller Germany in the long run, with all its shortages and deprivations — what am I saying: with its afflictions and faults — with the seed of collapse inside it, which I had, after all, been feeling for a long time?”
Wolf’s politics inform — some might say pollute — her rationale, but for such a political writer she is surprisingly reticent on two occasions here, both of which cry out for her explicit take on things. Her Christa character arrives in Los Angeles at a crucial moment, in time to follow the presidential election in the fall of 1992, and to gauge the residual tension simmering in ethnic neighborhoods in the wake of the Rodney King riots, but Wolf wastes both opportunities. The former gets scant treatment, with Wolf virtually silent on players and policies, and offering only one observation of note, her “delight when Hillary pulls Clinton’s speech out of her suit pocket.” The latter involves trips to Koreatown and a run-in with a black woman who screams at Christa and her companions for being “idle curiosity-seekers.” Insightful detail is thin on the ground, searing social commentary non-existent. When, at a dinner party, guests explain that the riots could break out again, one man muses that Christa must be no stranger to riots herself. “You call them riots?” she retorts. “You mean 1989? Some people called it a revolution.” There is the tantalizing whiff of digression and elucidation, of Wolf setting the record straight by serving up a potted history of the road to reunification, but it dies as soon as it is aired. Wolf has a political agenda, but it involves reinforcing her position by nailing her unfaded partisan colors to the mast and not exploring new and foreign avenues of dispute.
Indeed, Wolf even deliberately swerves off course. At one juncture Christa wonders what it is like to live under a dictatorship. She thinks she knows, for “I had lived through one already, after all, until I was sixteen, and you couldn’t compare that regime to the following forty years I had lived through, I thought, and I resisted equating the two.” But why, we ask ourselves? Because the GDR was no dictatorship? What is interesting here is that Wolf now has the chance to denounce Erich Honecker’s tawdry regime, but only makes sly digs here and there. Moreover, throughout her career she always “resisted equating the two,” even after the dissolution of the GDR, when there was no fear of censorship. Wolf’s autobiographical novel Patterns of Childhood (Kindheitsmuster; 1976) traces her growing up as a young victim of a fascist dictatorship; her novella What Remains (Was bleibt; written in 1979 but published in 1990, post-Wall) is a powerful depiction of life under Stasi surveillance and how sanity is corroded by paranoia and fear. Two separate themes, two separate ideologies, for two different books. City of Angels continues the autobiography of the former and the subject matter of the latter, but the two regimes depicted are handled as separate entities, and kept firmly at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Two main themes permeate Wolf’s literary output: the complexities of daily life and the necessity of memory. Her characters are usually writers, or at least engaged with writing, esteeming it as art as much as activity. Her prose is anchored in the dialectic, endowed with political awareness and adhering to feminist principles. In her lifetime, Wolf produced a great range of writing, covering many bases, but those themes and attributes unite even the most disparate of novels. Her debut, Divided Heaven (Der geteilte Himmel; 1963), a novel about lovers Manfred and Rita, whose East-West estrangement is compounded by the construction of the Wall, is textbook socialist realism. No Place on Earth (Kein Ort. Nirgends; 1979) imagines a fictitious meeting of two real Romantic writers. Accident (Störfall; 1987) covers the Chernobyl disaster. Medea (1996) is a sister-work to Cassandra (Kassandra) in its use of Greek myth as both a front and a conduit to explore the marginalization of women and moral decay of the GDR. In City of Angels, Wolf dusts off tropes and narrative devices from her previous works, giving them a fresh spin. For example, No Place on Earth fused literature with biographical and historical fact in such a way that we couldn’t feel the join and were left wondering where fact ended and fiction began. A notable short story, “Unter den Linden,” twined fantasy and reality to produce an entirely distortive dreamscape. City of Angels, while less cryptic than either of these, is the same kind of amalgam. Patterns of Childhood splits the narrator (Wolf calls it “the voice”) into two people: the child, always referred to as she, and the adult, a more inquiring you. (Juxtapose this with Rita in Divided Heaven, who, in one scene, compares her bewilderment with “the amazement of a child who thinks for the first time: I.”) In City of Angels, Wolf resorts to a similar schizophrenia, her first-person at times switching into a remorselessly interrogative second-person, one hungry for clarification and closure. And in The Quest for Christa T. (Nachdenken über Christa T.; 1968), arguably Wolf’s masterpiece, we follow an unnamed first-person narrator attempting to reconstruct the life of her dead friend, Christa T., pieced together through the narrator’s memories and the papers Christa T. left behind. Similarly, in City of Angels, the first-person narrator tries to make sense of her dead friend’s life with the aid of her own memories together with letters from the unknown émigré L. However, Wolf goes further, upgrading memory from theme to leitmotif, and filliping memory to recover those critical gaps it has chosen to erase.
Forgetting, or, as Wolf maintains, repressing, makes for a convenient out. But for Wolf and her generation of German writers, remembering was key. There is a useful German term called Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which roughly translates as “dealing with the past.” Günter Grass and Siegfried Lenz incorporated Germany’s darkest chapter into their writing as a means of understanding themselves. Heinrich Böll, a figurehead of so-called Trümmerliteratur, or “rubble literature,” used former war-damaged soldiers and POWs as characters to survey their ruined homeland and their own dashed hopes — the “rubble” here being their recent pasts and the broken men they have become. Wolf wrestled to come to terms with Germany’s checkered 20th-century history all her adult life, and we see traces of her struggle in those countless pages of agonized introspection. There is a rare and fleeting moment of poignancy in City of Angels in which she contemplates her country’s crimes. All at once dealing with the past seems impossible:
How can the survivors live with it? How can we Germans live with it? It is a burden that gets heavier year by year. There is nothing to work through, nothing to resolve, no sense to find in it. There is nothing but crimes that burst all bounds on our side and suffering that bursts all bounds on their side.
This is followed by a revelation:
And how long it took us to say “our,” our crime. And we clung for such a long time — I clung for such a long time — to the promise held out to us that we were totally different, the absolute opposite of those crimes: Communism, the society fit for human existence, not Fascism.
“Our crime” sounds like the shattered dreams of Böll’s soldiers. It is also the closest we get to Wolf equating the two ideologies — and to admitting that the initial proposition of communism as a beneficent flipside to fascism might have been a specious argument. This is Wolf speaking as a woman betrayed by leaders who steadily eroded and convoluted the social values on which her country was founded. City of Angels unflinchingly catalogs its author’s misplaced faith and poor judgment. But what singles it out as a particularly worthy addition to Wolf’s oeuvre is its reinforcement of the fact that its author was prepared to acknowledge her participation in history — from her indirect involvement as a child of the Hitlerzeit to her active role, however brief, as a Stasi stooge. Not every GDR writer was able to make this leap. And not one of her contemporaries, East or West, comes close to conveying disenchantment so plangently and so convincingly.
City of Angels, 10 years in the making, went on to win two of Germany’s top literary prizes. It is a cogent and illuminating work written by an author who still retains all her faculties — in her Lebensabend (a German word that translates literally as “life’s evening,” or twilight years), not in her dotage. Like On the Way to Taboo (Auf dem Weg nach Tabou; 1994), the collection of essays, speeches, and essays that anticipates it, City of Angels is a deeply confessionary book firing one blunt truth after another at the reader. In it, Wolf guts all skeletons from her closet, admitting to Stasi involvement, black dogs of depression, and “therapy through writing” — the last ameliorative only to a point, as she is certain her state-collaboration “will remain a painful, dark blot in my development.” Perhaps getting out of Germany and embarking on her investigative project was an alternative therapy. She can “work on the history of good old Europe […] here in the New World.” Better still, she can forget about Europe and immerse herself in Los Angeles. As a German colleague tells her, “you find yourself moving in pretty shallow waters sometimes, but the lightness here is just so refreshing most of the time, compared to the German need to complicate everything.”
This isn’t the only kind of lightness that provides relief. Wolf heads down Wilshire Boulevard, “exhilarated as always by the light that I never, never wanted to forget.” Later, she seems to be propelled by phototactic urges, declaring, “I wanted to drink in the light.” On her last day in the city, she sits on her usual bench on Ocean Park Promenade and stares out at the Pacific, telling herself, “I will always remember this light.” (In this one case, interestingly, she implies trust in her memory.) It should be said that Wolf’s prose is also light — not flippant or insubstantial but light, calm, evocative, autumnal, in keeping with her overall ruminative mood. Gone is the harsh stridency of earlier novels, that tough outspokenness that could at times border on belligerency and matched the author’s own argumentative approach, simultaneously combative and guarded.
The California pre-sunset light regularly entrances, even energizes Wolf, and she succeeds in mesmerizing us with it as well. If only she could have noticed more. Wolf, for all her talents, is no travel writer. Granted, she takes in “the rough poetry of the freeways” and the homeless people on Second Street mingling with the multicolored crowds, “drawn to this gentle climate like little splotches of color that didn’t match,” but otherwise her observations of the city are lackluster or prosaically rendered. Her initial Lost in Translation disorientation quickly dissipates, but it doesn’t follow that she then had to eschew gimlet-eyed outsider-looking-in descriptions juxtaposing the drabness of the land she left behind — “a country that has ceased to exist” — with the relative lurid Technicolor of the decadent West. Who are the “weird and semiweird types” that throng Venice on Saturdays and Sundays? What is behind “[t]his bottomless need Americans have for safety, certainty, security?” After admitting to paying “too little attention, or none at all” to the city’s important sightseeing attractions, Wolf grudgingly takes a tour of Universal Studios, where she is a lone soul marooned among hordes of “insanely enthusiastic tourists.” We know she is palpably unaffected by the thrills and pyrotechnics, because her sketched detail reads like bored doodling. Only in the book’s closing section, in which Wolf leaves California for a jaunt to the American Southwest and learns about Hopi and Navajo Indian culture, do we feel there is a more concerted effort to perk up and capture her surroundings. She calls this trip “a journey to the other side of reality,” an appellation that, with the right treatment, could have been used to illustrate the otherworldliness of Los Angeles.
Another problem afflicts the book, although to be fair it is neither Wolf’s fault, nor that of her excellent translator, Damion Searls. A note at the beginning informs us that all italics, other than those used for emphasis or to denote film and book titles, indicate words and phrases in English in the original. No doubt riots and happy hour and homeless people added an authentic touch and looked striking in the middle of German sentences, glinting on the page like oases of exotica. In English, however, the italics are irksome and distracting. It doesn’t help that Wolf opts to italicize the most facile nouns: living room, office, store. One man, she tells us, “lived on a mountain and they had driven together in his truck.” German terms, meanwhile, are arbitrarily italicized. Germans call the process that included the fall of the Wall and the run-up to reunification “die Wende” or “the Turn” and for some reason Searls flits between the two. “Schadenfreude,” on the other hand, is deemed accepted English usage and thus escapes the cursive dip.
But it would be churlish to claim that any of these faults mar enjoyment of the novel. “This city as a patchwork,” Wolf writes after a tour of a Jewish quarter, an apposite image as it matches the structure of her book. City of Angels is a beguiling hotchpotch of a novel, an artful collage jostling with multifarious ideas and issues. Sometimes Wolf lingers too long in one area, other times she knows exactly when to pan out. If one part doesn’t work or begins to wobble, there are plenty more at hand to bolster it. We accompany Wolf around the city and then down Memory Lane. We follow her on her mission to unveil the identity of the émigré L., and then down tangential channels to explore the nature of exile and the fates of those German greats — from Mann to Brecht to Marlene Dietrich — who washed up in Los Angeles, city of émigrés or “Weimar Under the Palms.” Low culture (watching episodes of Star Trek, inspecting Madonna’s “shrill” Sex) are viewed and evaluated through a high-culture lens (the Picard crew “demonstrated that unconditional discipline could go perfectly well with mature humanity ennobled by masculine understatement”; Wolf’s “twinge of revulsion” is not from La Ciccone shamelessly flaunting her naked body but from the bookstores charging a dollar to peek at an opened copy). We peruse Wolf’s notebook recollections and are privy to disquieting dreams, which she can only decode when figuratively clad in Dr. Freud’s overcoat.
Ultimately, though, it is the repeated forays into the depths of Wolf’s battered conscience and tortured soul that keep us rapt and rooting for her. Her recollections align her with, but also differentiate her from, her friend and countryman Günter Grass, who was similarly vilified for withholding a controversial past. In his memoir Peeling the Onion, Grass admitted to serving in the Waffen SS as a teenager — waiting 60 years to come clean. Wolf can identify with the pain of disclosure, that unwrapping of layers to locate the kernel of truth, but for her the peeling is done by her enemies:
In the City of Angels my skin is being peeled back. They want to know what lies beneath, and they find, as in every normal human being, muscles tendons bones veins blood heart stomach liver spleen. They are disappointed, they were hoping for the entrails of a monster.
Grass has since spoken openly about his past, but wants others to recognize their own moral wrongdoing. In a Guardian interview he tells the interviewer that in time England will consider its own colonial crimes. “No country,” he adds, “has the right to point only at the Germans. Everybody has to empty their own latrine.” This is echoed in City of Angels by Wolf’s colleague and sounding board at the research center, who might as well be Günter Grass:
Every single one of our modern societies, based as they are on colonization, repression, and exploitation, has to block out certain parts of its history and deny as much of its present as possible too, in order to keep the self-assurance it needs to live. But one day it will all collapse, if we don’t face reality.
In the end, Wolf realized she too must face reality. Her novels, particularly the later ones, mirror her own agenda, being peopled with characters who ransack their pasts to acquire peace of mind in the present. Her fictional namesake, Christa T., seeks to assert her individuality in a land of rigid orthodoxy and stifling conformity. Her creator, Christa W., was consumed with analyzing why she adhered to such a system and to what extent, if at all, she was “guilty.” That long road to self-actualization doesn’t culminate in the City of Angels, but it certainly takes her further forward, to a point where she is able to scrutinize and eliminate “humanity’s false paths.” Her journeying is by no means painless, but she has learned that if writing is her therapy, nothing can be off-limits: “I have the usual suspicion that my writing has ground to a halt because I have not succeeded in breaking through the barrier labeled ‘Do not touch!’ and because writing is pointless unless you do break through it.” City of Angels is a valuable coda to Wolf’s oeuvre, a valuable aid to understanding Wolf, and even ourselves. If there is a moral to her tale, it is that civilization is worth fighting for, and will endure — but only after we have fearlessly, unsqueamishly performed our own moral stocktaking. Perhaps that California light has brightened her horizon, filled her with something as absurd as hope. “Human beings are good and can be improved,” she tells us, “or else what is there?”
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer who has written for the likes of The Times Literary Supplement, The Economist, and The Literary Review in the United Kingdrom, and The National, the Forward, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Daily Beast elsewhere.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance writer who has written for the likes of The Times Literary Supplement, The Economist, and The Literary Review in the United Kingdrom, and The National, the Forward, the San Francisco Chronicle and The Daily Beast elsewhere. Born in Edinburgh, he currently lives in Berlin.
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