Klaus Merz - “We sharpened our / glances,” the poet writes in a three-liner, “Until the whole area / was full of knives.”

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Klaus Merz, Stigmata of Bliss: Three Novellas, Trans. by Tess Lewis, Seagull Books, 2017.

Klaus Merz is one of the most prominent, prolific, and versatile Swiss writers working today. Celebrated as a master of concise, condensed sentences, Merz brings depth and resonance to spare narratives with lyrical prose and striking images. Stigmata of Bliss brings together three of Merz’s critically acclaimed novellas, offering English readers the perfect introduction to his work.
Jacob Asleep introduces a family marked by illness, eccentricity, and a child’s death. In A Man’s Fate, a moment of inattention on a mountainous hike upends a teacher’s life and his understanding of mortality. And finally, The Argentine traces the fluctuations of memory and desire in a man’s journey around the world. In each novella, Merz takes readers on a profound and intimate journey. Read as a whole, the works complement, enrich, and echo each other.

The most generous writers give the reader something to do, respecting their capabilities. The least generous ones explain too much, reflecting credit on themselves. The Swiss writer Klaus Merz has engaged his readers in such a way that he is beloved among Germanophones who regard his 1997 novella Jacob Asleep as a contemporary classic. At the time of its publication, three volumes of Merz’s collected prose and poetry had already appeared; today there are seven such editions in print, establishing Merz as a master of tersely disquieting short prose fiction and lyric poetry. In his poem “Outlook,” he envisions a season when “it will be bright and May” and then reflects, “well-being will seize me / already I am afraid / not to be up to it.” The reader is beckoned not only to acknowledge the breach between brightness and dread, but also to discover a dolorous pleasure there.
Now, Jacob Asleep and two recent novellas, A Man’s Fate and The Argentine, have been translated by Tess Lewis for Anglophones and published together as Stigmata of Bliss. Merz originally assigned Jacob Asleep a subtitle: Eigentlich ein Roman or “Actually A Novel,” a signal that this prose has devised its own genre: fictional autobiography, a form that acknowledges the inventiveness of memory and its affinity to lyricism. Its narrator Lukas Renz (a near anagram of Klaus Merz) recalls his youth among family who live with lingering sadness from the death of his older brother Jacob, dead at birth. The father runs a bakery at their house and collapses in the street from epileptic fits. The depressive mother requires treatment at a sanitarium. A hydrocephalic little brother is taunted by children. Lukas says, “The hardest times for us were the relatively painless ones. We could not endure the latency of new wounds and immediately turned to the suffering of others, which was still much more difficult for us to bear than our own misery.”
Yet there is a lightness in Merz’s telling, abetted by brisk candor, evocative description, and a spareness suggesting a ripened urgency. There is also affection for these hurt lives and their habits, a sweetness in the speaker that rounds off the edges of his own tough recognitions. How did Jacob die? “The doctor had fumbled around roughly and clumsily in my mother’s wide-open pudenda and broken the baby’s neck at birth. With his metal forceps.” For Merz, the purpose of language is to confront and name the actual, no matter how traumatic. As in poetry, the reader’s eye is required to make nimble but achievable leaps between paragraphs that often comprise just a sentence or two. The swift movement from one striking observation or action to the next results in an evocation of the density of experience. Simplicity compiles complexity.
The second novella, A Man’s Fate, published in 2008, imagines the final hours of a man gone missing. Peter Thaler, a middle-aged philosophy teacher, is facing uncertain employment and perhaps a chronic illness. He packs some honey and a few lemons in his knapsack, boards a train with a one-way ticket, and hikes up to a hut in the Alps. But this is not a story with a bias for character development, psychological analysis, or vivid plotting. It is about the storyteller’s articulation of fate itself which, in this case, takes the form of Merz’s aptitude for measuring out limits. The unnamed speaker notes the mundanities Thaler encounters along the way toward his icy end. Thaler’s fate, in fact, is a failure to disappear since the dream-mode of his disappearance is now forever present.
Merz has spent years telling us that our sufferings are here to be exploited, recycled, and even rejoiced as mordantly superb tales. “ ‘Help is coming from Bregenz,’ Thaler had read in Kafka,” writes Merz. “The sentence remained in his mind, enigmatically isolated. He believes more deeply in Kafka’s prose than he does in the dear Lord …” And so does Merz.
Finally, there is The Argentine, a story about Johann Zeiter, who leaves his Swiss girlfriend after World War II to travel to Buenos Aires and work as a gaucho. Johann’s granddaughter has recounted the story to our unnamed narrator, and for a mysterious reason he is compelled to tell it. What necessitates or inspires his retelling? Johann develops an allergy that derails his gaucho aspiration. But he becomes a tango dancer instead, and after a few years he returns to marry his sweetheart and work for the rest of his life as a schoolteacher. The Grandfather’s simple life is modestly elevated to our attention:
Tell stories and let stories be told. In fact, Grandfather explained, at this point he preferred simply to listen and continue the dialogue internally. Sometimes just reading the paper every day was enough to satisfy his need for words. In any case, according to his cautious diagnosis, there are not enough people in the world who listen. Almost everyone feels compelled to offer self-descriptions that are nothing more than rehashings of what is already known. Without any self-determination. Only in dreams to people sometimes leave their telephones behind and live, to their horror, a life without a net. Perhaps that is why they no longer value their dreams properly.”
Merz’s cunning, compressed prose allows us to read beyond the bulked-out rehashings of conventional prose fiction – and to listen for the sounds of the inexpressible, the other side of life. The dark and bright aspects of life are yoked together in the collection’s title Stigmata of Bliss which, in Jacob Asleep, takes the form of the hot chafing on the children’s legs the result of ecstatic rides on their uncle’s motorcycle. Until now, only one of Lenz’s children’s books (Ken’s Great Adventure) and a translation of new poems (Out of the Dust / Aus dem Staub, 2011) have been available to English readers. I hope more titles are forthcoming, especially through Tess Lewis’ sensitively attuned renditions. - Ron Slate

Klaus Merz, Out of the Dust, Trans. by Marc Vincenz, Spuyten Duyvil, 2014.  excerpt

“Klaus Merz shows us what remains until we become dust—and how in spite of this, we can even expose impermanence with great joy. Even while reading, we age. Seldom has one—line by line—moved closer to the inevitable as in these conciliatory yet perishable verses.”—Tages-Anzeiger

“Klaus Merz has a eye for the substance of things; his poems can be interpreted as lyrical snapshots… [and yet,] despite his knife-edged precise reductionism, his poems are not stark and severe, but often packed with humor and irony...”—Liveres–Bücher

“A master of the precise aperçu, of distillation and insinuation: a poet who carefully weighs each and every word, color and tone. An autumn wind wafts through these poems. There is talk of departure, death and impermanence, but also, time and time again, of the beauty of an endangered world. Klaus Merz dares—without wavering, but with a tender meticulousness—to do something that has been the task of poets for millennia…” —Neue Züricher Zeitung am Sonntag

“A master of the short form who… permits the phenomena to speak for themselves instead of infusing them with an external meaning. With a laconic frugality, he succeeds to enter the substance and metaphysical depth of objects and make them quite visible.”—Basler Zeitung

There is a freshness of approach, an originality of metaphor in Out of the Dust by Klaus Merz (beautifully translated by Marc Vincenz) that is astounding. Alongside that magnetic originality — of image, phrase and characterization — is a kindness and romantic (with a small “r”) impulse that makes his poetry irresistibly appealing.
The opening poem “Hard into the Wind” turns the tables on being a nonconformist — “Never played golf…or sailed hard into the wind” — speak to the poet’s self-loyal lifestyle and values, a “never” contrasted with what he HAS frequently done, “see(ing) within my nearest /, all the way into her /childhood faces.” Thus the poem conveys a soft but firm sense that not sailing “Hard into the wind” is hard too.  Reversal of direction, and the startling oxymoron, are two of Merz’s spirited array of techniques.
Moments like “Clouds roll/adamantly by” (“Pinacoteca”), “Since yesterday he owns a mobile and/the world considers him healed,” (“Back Office”), and “Entered an area/somewhere south of trepidation”) all convey the truth that when a poet enhances reality with metaphors, truths much harder to find than appearances are revealed. Nowhere is Merz’s artful blending of characterization and oxymoron more evident than in the brief poem “Beyond Recall”:
“Towards midnight
a yodeling moped driver zips
past my window
with his visor open as if
he were going off to a happy war.”

Merz conveys the ludicrous concept of a “happy war” through the peculiar, almost unreal moped driver; he manages to make his (admittedly vague) antiwar statement a humorous one. The conclusion — “Why then, a little later / does the noise / of my burning cigarette paper / terrify me?” — suggests an intuition against war on the part of the apparently very high strung narrator, one that emphasizes the absurdity of a “happy war.”
Merz’s world is a shimmering window onto beauty and insight, so precisely understated that many of the poems border on the hypnotic and can be read time and time again. It’s no wonder that so many are short, eight or ten lines or less: his eye and ear are both so incisive that if he wrote at too great length the resultant intensity could be painful. Merz is a poet who expands and deepens with his conciseness, who embodies imagism’s implied aesthetic of “less is more.” This book of exceptional magic will expand the horizons of anyone who reads it. -

“There are sentences / which heal.” These two opening lines of a love poem entitled “Light” indicate one of the directions taken by the Swiss-German poet and prose writer Klaus Merz (b. 1945): he sees writing as a way of approaching others and the world, of reconciling oneself with being, of re-immersing oneself in daily life. This poem is included in one of Merz’s important recent collections, Aus dem Staub (2010), which has now been given a sensitive and accurate translation by Marc Vincenz.
A major literary figure in his native Switzerland, where his prose narrative Jakob schläft (Jakob Sleeps, 1997) is considered a modern classic, Merz writes short verse that appears simple on the surface. But closer inspection reveals that what seem to be bald statements in his poetry are actually provisional understatements. Although his verse might initially seem naïve, it probes ever more deeply into essential issues and questions. Here is a particularly subtle poem, “Preparatory She-Night,” that also evokes “scars” and thus healing or, perhaps, the ultimate impossibility of healing:
Sometimes before day arrives,
my life becomes accessible
deep down
into childhood.

Scars glimmer on
a verse: I cool them down
with rain, with snow.

Future remains fleeting,
only the dead are close
and the future loses
its consequence.
Some poems are about getting along with one’s fellow human beings, who might well include a mistrusted neighbor who suddenly “raises his hand / to open you up / with caresses.” Interestingly enough, such images, though they approach sentimentality, do not make us snigger; instead, they encourage us to think more sincerely about possibilities — given that so much seems impossible when it comes to human interactions. Such is the paradox of Merz’s deft use of irony. The irony shifts the reader into a more authentic vantage point. Yet that vantage point is by no means without its awareness of mankind’s incurable potential for cruelty. “We sharpened our / glances,” the poet writes in a three-liner, “Until the whole area / was full of knives.”
Several pieces use a tongue-in-cheek humor that is somehow both factual and abstract. A case in point is “Three Short Stories,” a brusque piece that simply lists three words—story titles—in italics: “Windrose. Harelever. / Signalbell.” Merz then concludes wryly: “Resistance / to detail / still grows.” What, in fact, are the true details in our own stories? What are the things to which we are attached, without really knowing so, or from which we unconsciously feel estranged? Even when Merz notes, elsewhere, that he is recording a “nail-biting event” with “cold fingers,” nothing cold truly permeates the funny, sometimes absurdist touches in his poetry. At times, his odd juxtapositions make the reader wonder just how he or she is supposed to react. With a chuckle? With a shudder? Or both at once? “Big Night” notably begins with “your heart- / beat on my ear” near the sea, but finishes in Karakorum where
Genghis Khan has set
his horde in motion
again. Bring me pictures
of Mars, he orders his
retinue, go forth.

Above all, Merz wields his deceptively simple diction to pry open our hidden secrets: what we leave unsaid, what we neglect, avoid. As a tool, his poetics seem soft, but they are sharp. He restores the “old questions,” as one of his poems is in fact titled:
Can life
Can love
the beating of a heart
the flowing of blood
the fermentation of dough
snow falling
be learned?
There is an obviousness about such lines that makes us realize that we have forgotten how to speak genuinely like this, how to ask such fundamental questions. Here is a poet who brings us back home, then leaves us in a meditative mood that is rarely comforting:
Towards midnight a yodeling
moped driver zips
past my window
with his visor open, as if
he were going off to a happy war.
Why then, a little later,
does the noise
of my burning cigarette paper
terrify me?

John Taylor

review by Stacy Skolnik

I wish I could claim that, while riding back to the hotel on the tramway from the Frankfurt Book Fair, on a very rainy day, I had first read this poem by Klaus Merz:                
Since five o'clock it's been raining
the horizon makes
no fuss
about this.

Actually a love poem
has no need of weather
But I would be fibbing. It's true that during my three days in Frankfurt the weather was variable (and I had no umbrella), that I would take the screeching Strassenbahn (with its steamed-up windows) back and forth to the Book Fair, and that it was indeed there that I finally began reading and translating for my own enjoyment—and now yours, I hope—this Swiss-German poet and prose writer, born in 1945, who had been on my "find-list" for more than a year.
For more than a year? In the age of Internet book ordering? How to explain this old-fashioned eccentricity except by admitting that, at least for me, some poets and writers call for treasure hunts more than immediate access, whether electronic or otherwise. Most often, as with Merz (who was first recommended to me by a British philosopher living in Germany, then by a Swiss translator, then by a Swiss poet), writer-friends tip me off to them. Most often, they are admired by their literary compatriots, but have rarely been widely translated. I cannot find their books at the municipal and university libraries in the medium-sized French town in which I live. This is already somewhat enticing, yet there is no urgency. I do not need to read their books this afternoon or even the day after tomorrow, but I sense that our paths must cross.
I was at the Book Fair for other reasons, but I knew I would have some free time and so I kept Merz's name—and the name of his Austrian publishers, Haymon Verlag—on a slip of paper in my pocket. In the meantime, I had done some research: on the Internet! Merz was becoming increasingly well-known in German-speaking countries and his collected writings—seven volumes in all—were beginning to appear in a splendid cloth edition. Three volumes were already available and, as I write this, a fourth—devoted to his "feuilletons," essays, journalistic columns, and speeches—has just been issued.
Its title, Der Mann mit der Tür oder Vom Nutzen des Unnützen, sums up the atmosphere and approach of some of his writing, and notably his early verse: "The Man with the Door or On the Use of Uselessness." Merz often takes interest in some unimportant thing or phenomenon—drab falling rain in the aforementioned poem provides an example—and shows how meaningful it can be in a certain human context. A love poem perhaps has no need of weather, and yet it is because the poet first perceives and ponders the falling rain that he realizes this. As an emotion ever in potential movement, love above all tries to withdraw from reality, to isolate itself from all kinds of real and metaphorical weather. And out of the bad weather and all alone we, too, find ourselves, at the end of the poem, face to face with our own "darling."
It is the first volume of Merz's collected writings, Die Lamellen stehan offen ("The Slats Stay Open"), devoted to his early poetry from the years 1963-1991, that initially attracted me when I hung out for a while at the Haymon Verlag stand. As I was leafing through the book, I kept stopping at the love poems. One of these is "Warning," which is rather similar to the poem quoted above in that the word of endearment used at the end changes the perspective. Somewhat worrisomely, the full meaning is disclosed:
Even my own
still unthought thought
you are already
beginning to read
on my forehead
Such poems are very simple in form and diction, yet they make one consider one's own minor joys and lurking turmoil. What else can I say? Can any other critical commentary be put forward except that of underscoring their psychological subtlety? Merz raises no rhetorical façade. He does not try to impress with lexical or syntactic brilliance; whatever formal "modernism" he has assimilated, it consists here of little more than some suppressed punctuation between lines. If he is slightly ironic, as with the word of endearment unexpectedly employed at the end of the above poem, the irony does not make us sneer or snicker, but rather meditate more sincerely—this is the paradox of the irony—on a certain feeling of amorous uneasiness from which we may also suffer. Clearly, his goal is to sketch typical human situations in a way that opens the door onto all that is left unstated, unwritten—here, uncomfortable or troubling aspects of a relationship. What strikes the reader time and again is the density of the emotional interaction that is imaginable beyond or between such lines.
Take another example, "Wish." As the "wish" unfolds, Merz is perhaps implicitly describing two potential lovers whose élan toward each other is constantly thwarted by outside factors:
that something would open up
for us:
By chance.
Or is he referring to a couple whose relationship is belabored by something that prevents it from blossoming? In any event, in only a few words he captures that inner voice we all hear when we talk to ourselves—only to ourselves—and become more acutely aware of lingering hopes that will probably never be fulfilled. Many of Merz's poems similarly point to, or move back up into, an inner world. The poet keeps moving upstream, as it were, toward an elementary poetic language as well, whence the perfectly appropriate deceptive simplicity of his vocabulary. He seeks out what is hidden in the recesses—mute aspirations, silent avowals—and gives a firm, if discreet, voice to them. They are revelatory of our genuine bonds to another human being. Like many of Merz's poems, "Distances" ultimately disturbs or puzzles in a characteristically quiet way:
From eye to eye
from eye to mouth
from mouth to mouth
from mouth to hand
from hand to hand:

the untranslatable measure
of distances
takes all our measures.
Not all of Merz's early poems are about love. Some pieces relate odd coincidences or funny juxtapositions, such as a farmer who takes his tape recorder out into his field during a drought and plays Handel's "Water Music." Another poem depicts an echo as coming back "snow-covered" to a man crying out in a wintry wood. Should the poet have added something specific about the man's solitude? If so, what? The imagery suffices unto itself. Still other, slightly longer, poems evoke moments of attentiveness in which the narrator suddenly realizes that apparently unconnected phenomena are in fact building into a significant configuration. Daily life often provides the setting, but the final meaning is not necessarily forthcoming. One of these poems is entitled "Modest Daily Chores":
Wasps and old hags
are in the air.
My neighbor
fills up his silo
for the winter.
I lay my hand
on your chest:
Whoever asserts his life
declares it to be true

I recently read in the train.
Once again, Merz re-creates the subtle interplay between outer and inner worlds that takes place, in our bodies and minds, as we live from moment to moment and sometimes, in fact rarely, feel ourselves living. Indeed, these poems often seem to indicate, even signify, that the poet-narrator is becoming more vividly conscious of his own processes of feeling and thinking and perceiving. These self-reflexive states of consciousness, or "apperceptions" (as they were called by Kant, Leibniz, and Maine de Biran), reveal aliveness. That is, when we sense ourselves caught up in the very processes of feeling or thinking or perceiving, we sense our aliveness as undeniably tangible, if rather eerie. And just as soon, the sensation vanishes.
Moreover, with verse reduced to such rhetorical directness, yet remaining so semantically suggestive, it is not surprising that Merz also sometimes meditates on the very act of writing. In these poems, like the love poems, one finds the same search for the source; that is, for the fundamental right word, for the clearest and yet most meaningful formulation of a feeling, thought or perception. As with his love poetry, Merz draws back the curtain on unostentatious yet no less mysterious vistas:
In the evening
      To justify the day
      with a single sentence.
      With a word.
      With the letter
What lies behind this letter "A"?
These reflections on writing notwithstanding, Merz especially engages with the more subdued, yet telltale, forms of inner commotion. Time and again he comes back to what binds us to each other or to what can unbind us. This is why his poems about poetry rarely dwell on the issue of poetry per se, but rather return, implicitly, to the questions of how we live (and love) or how we could or should live (and love). Certain fundamental dichotomies spark these essential questions over and again. For example, the mere six lines of a poem entitled "Poems" defines Merz's darkness-to-light poetics:
On my writing desk
debris pile up.

Blackthorn breaks
through the rubble.

Through dark names
I speak of light.
Similarly, his poems sometimes grapple with persistent fear and the prospect of liberating himself from it. His poem "Outlook" predicts a day when "it will be bright and May." An auspicious perspective, so it seems. And yet, avows the poet,
well-being will seize me
already I am afraid
not to be up to it.

I will long keep walking
through my comfortable room
grasp the bars in front of the window
as if they were violin strings
and be frightened
by my song.
This question of fear is related to another major theme in Merz's work: the constant presence, in his mind, of the death of a brother. His poem "My Brother Martin" emphasizes the recurrent perturbing nature of this death:
At night his face rises
pale and vulnerable
from the many
not-yet-dead dead
his smile retains me

In the early morning hardens
the salty strip of my eyelid.
This deceased brother's haunting presence is expanded narratively in Merz's most famous novel, Jakob schläft ("Jakob is Sleeping"), published in 1997.
Merz has actually written as much prose as poetry, and in a variety of mostly short forms. The second volume of his collected writings, In der Dunkelkammer (In the Darkroom), brings together his early prose from the years 1971-1982, whereas the third volume, Fährdienst (Ferry Service), gathers his prose from 1983 to 1995. Merz practices all genres of short prose: stories, prose poems, poetic prose evocations, even touching vignettes such as "A Child's Question":
      Valeria, a child who cannot fall asleep where, indeed, children are so lovely when they are sleeping.
      Achilles, honey, nothing helps, only at last, after several hours, the gentle answer to the child's difficult question, whether God is spelled with one or two d's.
Now that Valeria is fast asleep, let me return to Jakob schläft. The novel takes off from the death, shortly after birth, of the narrator's older brother. On the cemetery cross, this child is merely named "Child Renz" because he died (of hydrocephalus) before he could be baptized and officially given the name, Jakob, that had been chosen for him. The title also alludes to the French song "Frère Jacques, dormez-vous?," which in German goes: "Bruder Jakob, schläfst du noch?" The narrator remarks from the onset that he has learned how to read from the wooden cross into which the letters spelling out the name "Child Renz" have been burnt. Reading, and thus writing, stem from this death; that is to say, from this absence, this redoubtable presence. By using the subtitle Eigentlich ein Roman (Actually a Novel), Merz underscores the necessary fictional ambiguity of any literary approach drawing on personal subject matter. The subtitle probably increases the reader's conviction that there are crucial autobiographical elements involved, all the more so in that "Renz" is a near anagram of "Merz." What can be deduced from all this? That even the strictest autobiographical realism comes clothed in fiction, even as the most rudimentary or starkest literary language —as in Merz's own poems—by definition stands at several removes from the reality it designates. Which is by no means to suggest that the fiction, in such cases as Jakob schläft, avoids or veers away from all-too-human truths that have been painfully felt. Because of Merz's especial use of language, in both his prose and poetry, one thinks of these philosophical issues when reading him. Drawing on daily life in the 1950s and early 1960s (which encompasses, amusingly, the use of a shortwave radio), Merz depicts a distraught Swiss family unable to get past mourning and get on with living. The writer shows how the father, the mother, and the younger brother (the narrator) continue to be obsessed by this death, to the extent that intimate aspects of their daily experiences remain informed by it. Odd details keep the narrative slightly askew, even hallucinatory. Clear and distinct perceptions of reality shift into visions. Quite simply, the dead brother seems "alive." At one point, the narrator notes that his brother "did not scream as the red cat lay near him in the water." In another passage, "Sonne" (Sun)—the dead brother's nickname—"is standing in a dark choir." Another vision finds the brother "sitting up straight near [the narrator] on a wooden bench and staring out, from beneath his burdened forehead, at the landscape going by." Further on, the dead brother is astride an enormous tricycle. Composed with precision (especially as regards rural terms) and yet also with striking evocativeness, Jakob schläft is an absorbing tale—with a somewhat surprising conclusion. The time has come "to grow silent," as Merz declares in a poem, "until once again / the mountain cloud breaks up." The sun is now   
burning a hole
in the morning hills
leveling out the foreland
lifting up the hinterland
and the eye is destroying the borders
with light.
Just when it stopped raining, I had to leave Frankfurt. I am on the train back to Paris. But there remains much more by Merz to read than I have outlined here. Three more volumes of his collected writings will appear in due course, not to mention other extant collections of poetry and prose that can be ordered. I'm not sure I can wait. I have just spotted a collection called Aus dem Staub ("From the Dust"). I am no longer on the Strassenbahn, nor even on the train, but on the Internet ...   - John Taylor

Short Fiction by Klaus Merz


Klaus Merz was born in 1945 in Aarau, Switzerland. He has published twenty volumes of poetry and numerous works of fiction, most notably the short story collection “Adams Kostüm” (2001) and the novellas “Jakob schläft” (Sleeping Jack, 1997) and “Der Argentinier” (The Argentine, 2009). Klaus Merz has been awarded many prestigious prizes, including the “Hermann-Hesse-Literaturpreis” in 1997, the “Gottfried Keller-Preis” in 2004, the “Werkpreis der Schweizerischen Schillerstiftung” in 2005 and, most recently, the “Basler Lyrikpreis” and the “Hölderlinpreis” in 2012. His most recent collection of poems is “Unerwarteter Verlauf” (Unexpected Course) (Haymon Verlag, 2014).


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