Benjamín Labatut: When We Cease to Understand the World (Chile) – review no 153

Translated from Spanish by Adrian Nathan West

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

I have an almost pathological aversion to physics. I grew up as the daughter of a scientist, so I can only assume that my utter lack of understanding of his pet subject came as something of a disappointment to him. I dropped the subject at 14.

Reading the rapturous endorsement from Philip “dust” Pullman on the back of the English translation of this 2020 book, then, initially gave me the heebie-jeebies:

We may be familiar with such things as Schrodinger’s cat and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle … but the sheer audacity, the utter insanity of the ideas and thinkers who discovered these ideas has never, in my experience, been so vividly and terrifyingly conveyed as in this short, monstruous and brilliant book“.

I prevaricated, I dithered, I procrastinated wildly. I picked the book up, stroked the cover and put it back down. Days later I admired the yellow end papers, then flicked through the pages, Matrix-style like Keanu Reeves, trying to absorb the contents without actually having to engage with any of them: “I know Kung Fu!”.

Finally, I opened the book, cracking the spine nonchalantly, “quantum physics, huh? bring it on” and began to read. And I was captivated. Labatut alludes to the “recondite” knowledge of scientists, and this book is a treasure trove of such knowledge. I learned (kind of, don’t test me) the essentials of Shwarzchild’s Singularity, explaining the phenomenon of black holes, and potted biographies of great figures who’ve made jaw-dropping scientific discoveries, but this was not a dry, Wikipedia-type account. The prose, described by the author as “a work of fiction based on real events” is gripping, mixing erudition and deep research with beautiful composition, flights of imagination and bizarre historical facts.

I preferred the first half of the book, which weaves together disparate facts and fictions in a kaleidoscopic, sometimes apocalyptic whirl, to the second half, which concentrates on the rivalries between Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, although ironically this section is the one that is most obviously fictionalised rather than a lyrically written work of non-fiction.

At the crux of this book is “the heart of the heart” – something the mathematician Alexander Grothendieck conceived of as at the very centre of the discipline – and which seems to have driven him to insanity. Even at his most productive, Labatut writes:

For years he devoted the whole of his energy, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, to mathematics. He did not read newspapers, watch television or go to the cinema. He liked ugly women, squalid apartments, dilapidated rooms. He worked cloistered in a cold office with flaking paint falling from the walls, his back turned to the only window, with pen and paper on his desk and only four objects as decoration: his mother’s death mask, a small wire sculpture of a goat, a jar of Spanish olives and a charcoal portrait of his father, drawn in Le Vernet concentration camp.”

Despair and revelation seemed to come hand in hand all too often, as in case of Karl Schwarzchild, who calculated the point at which the theory of relativity collapses, conceiving a paradoxical point where a star exhausts its fuel source and begins to implode, a case in which “space-time would not simply bend; it would tear apart“. Thus, “time froze, space coiled around itself like a serpent. At the centre of that dying star, all mass became concentrated in a single point of infinite destiny.”

During the First World War, according to Labatut’s account, Schwarzchild began to fear that this same rent in the fabric of conceivable reality was being seen in the human psyche: “He babbled about a black sun dawning over the horizon, capable of engulfing the whole world, and he lamented that there was nothing we could do about it. Because the singularity sent forth no warnings. The point of no return – the limit past which one fell prey to its unforgiving pull – had no sign or demarcation. Whoever crossed it was beyond hope. Their destiny was set, as all possible trajectories led irrevocably to the singularity. And if such was the nature of the threshold, Schwarzchild asked, his eyes shot through with blood, how would we know if we had already crossed it?

This stunning work about the wonders and pitfalls of genius, and the dangers and miracles of scientific discovery, woven through with the horrors of the wars of the 20th century, would be a deserving winner of the International Booker Prize, though some pedants may claim it to be barely a work of fiction. So far though, I’m finding the International Booker lists of the past couple of years far more inspiring than the “standard” Booker lists.

Mini catch-up: other books and films and stuff

I’m still wading my way through the International Booker shortlist, although I was slightly derailed by stress after spending a few nights in hospital with my daughter last week, and could only cope with Naiose Dolan’s Exciting Times, which I quite liked. It has an endorsement from David Nicholls on the cover, but doesn’t beat his One Day in my opinion: though that was very relatable to me, and covered my generation, whereas this made me feel a bit middle-aged. I mean, I am middle-aged, so fair enough. However, it was a good read for a hospital vigil of sorts, when I didn’t want a challenge or to be made sad. It was very funny and sharp, and a bit romantic, about a young Irish teacher adrift in Hong Kong, and also great for a linguistics nerd like myself as there are interesting asides about languages (did you know Irish has lots of different words for seaweed?). It’s brilliant on social media etiquette, and overall I would recommend.

Off the International Booker shortlist I just read The Dangers of Smoking in Bed from the imagination of Argentinian writer Mariana Enriquez and expertly translated by Megan McDowell, but I didn’t love it. It’s very dark, and not without black humour, modern gothic with a nod to Argentina’s murky past – all of which makes it sound great, but the quality of the stories was patchy I thought, and some of them I just wanted to … well, end. So, yeah, I’m afraid although I found some of it brilliant, some stories were frankly boring or a bit juvenile in their desperate desire to shock.

Film

During April we watched Palm Springs on Amazon Prime., and loved it, though its not for kids. I read somewhere it is like Groundhog Day crossed with Bridesmaids, which is about right…

Then the other day we watched The Mitchells vs The Machines over on Netflix, which very much is a family film, but is also good fun for grown-ups.

TV

On All4 we’ve just found Stath Sells Flats, which is set around a family of hapless Greek-British estate agents in north London, and is just a hoot. Lots of familiar faces, and it reminds me a bit of my five years in Haringey in my 20s. I’m going to be watching the new series of the very funny Motherland this week too, a parenting comedy that is basically a documentary, in my experience!

Oscar-nominated Romanian film Collective (Review no 152)

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A documentary revealing large-scale fraud in the national health sector, leading to preventable deaths from infection, was the worst possible film to watch in the weeks preceding my daughter’s admission to hospital for a major leg operation last week (she’s home now and recovering). Collective (2019) was nominated for best international feature film and shortlisted in the category of best documentary film at this year’s Oscars, and when I saw that it was streaming on iplayer I thought I’d take a look, but it was more gruelling than anticipated.

Romania is pretty notorious for state corruption. Ministers and entire governments regularly fall as a result of sleaze probes and media allegations, and its politics make the oily BoJo look squeaky clean. In 2015 a nightclub fire killed 27 young people and injured many others. There was a national scandal, as the nightclub had been licensed, despite a lack of fire exits.

However, a new scandal was to engulf the country when almost 40 more young people, who had been injured in the fire, died in the subsequent weeks, often from theoretically avoidable cases of severe infection.

An investigation by, incongruously, the Romanian Sports Gazette revealed that hospital disinfectants had been diluted by producers, and were up to 10 times weaker than advertised. Dan Condrea, the head of the pharmaceuticals company Hexi Pharma, accused of complicity in the disinfectant scandal, died mysteriously in a car crash soon after the facts were made public. Was his death suicide? An accident? Murder?

We follow Vlad Voiculescu, the newly appointed, idealistic young health minister, who seeks to improve the nation’s health situation, noting that in Romania people with money typically prefer to travel to other nations for medical treatment due to its dire state. However, his work is impeded by entrenched corruption and a lack of adequate health infrastructure, as well as the apathy and effective disenfranchisement of the electorate. The movie itself cannot be dismissed as a piece of political propaganda and, with its focus on the dogged work of journalists determined to uncover the truth, is moving, shocking and at times even awe-inspiring – and would have made a worthy, if undoubtedly slightly leftfield choice for an Oscar jury.

At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop (Senegal): Review no 151

AFRICA

Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis

I’ve started reading my way through the Man Booker International shortlist (in alphabetical order by author). The winner is announced on 2 June, and I’m hoping I can get through a book a week before then. The £50,000 prize money is divided equally between the author and translator, and each shortlisted author and translator also receives a £1,000 prize. 

I started with At Night All Blood is Black by Senegalese-French writer David Diop, first published in French in 2018, and published in English translation in 2020. I have noticed that my reviews always seem somehow to focus on serious or upsetting topics. I really want to lighten up my blog posts a bit … but, yeah, this book is not going to do that.

It is a short, sharp shock of a novel, historical fiction that examines the experience of Alfa, a young Senegalese ‘Chocolat’ soldier fighting for the French during the First World War. The beautifully translated prose is incantatory and looping, as Alfa berates himself for the events that lead to the death of Mademba, his “more-than-brother”, killed by a soldier described only by the blue colour of his eyes. Alfa struggles with misplaced guilt, and hates himself for his cowardice in refusing to slit his friend’s throat as he lay dying, like a “sacrificial sheep”, instead powerlessly watching his life painfully ebb away over a period of many hours.

The novel is visceral, and the relentless, lucid prose builds up a repetitive rhythm, like the rounds of battle the narrative is set within and between. Alfa’s actions, as he seeks to avenge Mademba, are so brutal and sadistic that they unnerve his fellow soldiers, both white and black.

“…when I returned to our trench the way a mamba slithers back into into its nest after the hunt, they avoided me like the plague. The bad side of my crimes had won out over the good side. The Chocolat soldiers began to whisper that I was a soldier sorcerer, a demm, a devourer of souls, and the white Toubab soldiers were starting to believe them. God’s truth, each thing carries its opposite within. Up to the third hand, I was a war hero, beginning with the fourth I became a dangerous madman, a bloodthirsty savage. God’s truth, that’s how things go, that’s how the world is: each thing is double

Alfa is sent away from the front to recuperate, and although he does not speak French he seems to be connecting with medical staff, as he works through his memories in drawings: he revisits his past in Senegal, the loss of his mother, the love of his father, his first romance with a local girl. We hope for redemption, but this book is not about redemption.

I smile at people, they smile back. They can’t hear, when I smile at them, the thundering laughter resounding in my head. Which is lucky, because they’d take me for a lunatic otherwise. It’s the same with the severed hands.”

The prose is shocking and powerful, and the translation feels flawless. I really think this book is outstanding, and would be a worthy winner of the prize (albeit having finished only one of the six on the shortlist at this stage!).

Wars of the Interior by Joseph Zárate (Peru): Review no 150

Translated from Spanish by Annie McDermott

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

With this book, the celebrated Peruvian journalist Joseph Zárate has created a work of reportage on the environmental and human costs of the demands of globalisation. Published in Spanish in 2018 as Guerras del interior, an English translation has just been released by Granta. Wars of the Interior isn’t my usual fare, but it seemed to be more than topical, and I’ve not yet covered Peru at all in my sofa-bound tour of global culture.

The book is divided into three sections, focusing on three principal commodities: wood, gold and oil. And it is full of righteous anger at the injustices wrought against ordinary, often illiterate and thus essentially powerless people by the large logging and mining companies. These behemoths replicate against often indigenous, peasant people the same inhumane brutalities that were enacted by colonial rulers in the past.

Reading about the absolute lack of environmental concern shown by loggers, the corruption, and the amount of environmental damage caused by the production of everyday commodities made me feel I should stop buying completely. It certainly made me feel guilty for the amount of books I buy, and for the piles of proofs that I print out for work (I just can’t keep sufficient focus if I read them on screen).

“A map is an instrument of power”, and the apparently empty land (or “silences”) mapped by official cartographers based in the capital, Lima, can frequently obscure areas of rainforest or land attractive for mining where native communities have traditionally made their homes, which is then parcelled off piecemeal and sold off to massive corporations. Communities unused to official bureaucracy, unable to read and write, who have perhaps never travelled to a large town or city before or even traversed a paved road are ill-placed to take on these companies. Maps say different things, and the bureaucracy in Peru doesn’t acknowledge the way peasants have exchanged land for centuries, or recognise their documentation as legitimate. And troublemakers are at genuine risk of assassination. Criminal links are widespread in these industries. For example, according to the World Bank, 80% of wood exports from Peru have illegal origins.

Peru is the greatest exporter of gold in Latin America, and the sixth largest exporter worldwide. But gold is a rare metal:

“If we collected all the gold collected throughout history – 187,000 tonnes, the World Gold Council estimates – and melted it down, it would barely fill four Olympic swimming pools”.

The mining of gold is also intrinsically wasteful and toxic. “To end up with an ounce of gold – enough to make a wedding ring – you need to extract fifty tonnes of earth, or the contents of forty removal lorries,” writes Zárate. Later he tells us that “whole mountains disappear in weeks”, and that mining enough gold for a pair of fancy earrings “produces some twenty tonnes of waste, which includes chemicals and poisonous metals” – specifically cyanide, since a wash of cyanide and water is used to dissolve the rock that surrounds the precious metal.

The final section discusses the oil industry, and shares evidence that the corrupting forces of capitalism have resulted in the misuse of both environmental resources and people. Children are coerced to help clean up oil spills with promises of the money for electronics, while the chemicals used to “clean” the rivers are accused of simply causing oil residues to disperse to the bottom.

By tackling these important but easily overlooked issues through a work of reportage, the impact on communities and the natural world really hits home. Not an easy read, but no doubt an important one. Whether it will make any difference at a grass roots level remains to be seen.

Die Tomorrow – A Film from Thailand: Review no 149

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

I’m not entirely sure what the point of this film was. Written and directed by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, it opens with on-screen text informing the viewer that a mayfly lives for just 24 hrs, followed by the statement that the film is a personal memoir of the years between between 2012 and 2017. A timer counts down the seconds on the top left of the screen, a sledge-hammer of a memento mori. We’re not here for nuance.

Trailed as a film about “today”, about the “day before”, it opens with a group of female students celebrating in a hotel room. They drink beer and read their horoscopes and discuss their aspirations; their graduation ceremony will take place the next morning. Having run out of beer, someone needs to go out for more supplies. Then comes the stark statement “24 May 2017: a 21 year old student was hit by a truck”.

So, we watch people’s carefree, oblivious interactions, and other moments that come brimming with care, before we are suddenly taken to the aftermath of a tragedy: a cleaner tidying a silent hotel room, or some washing flapping in the breeze on an empty terrace. The deaths themselves thankfully all take place off-screen.

These are primarily tragedies of the young, but we observe how one person’s unexpected demise can be another person’s lifeline: such as the woman with a failing heart, whose life is dependent on the donation of a healthy organ after someone else’s fatal accident or sudden death. In another scene, a delighted young woman gets her big break after the shocking death of a rival performer. We also encounter the ironies of those who feel they have had too much of life, but whose bodies propel them seemingly endlessly on. One man, interviewed at 102, says he is more than ready to die, before we cut forward to his muted 104th birthday celebrations.

Interspersed with these vignettes are death-related facts and statistics – did you know there are 120 deaths a minute worldwide? There are also segments featuring mortality-orientated interviews with both the very young and the very old. Thus a young child is asked, “what do you think about the notion that human suffering and death are inevitable?“. Although a surprisingly mature and well-reasoned answer comes back in reply, I found such exchanges uncomfortable.

Overall I found the piece heavy-handed, mawkish and somehow adolescent, and I could have done without it in the midst of a massive pandemic.

Review no 148: German TV Series Deutschland ’86

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Stylish Cold War spy drama Deutschland ’83, a co-production between Germany and the USA, aired in the UK in 2016, and became a runaway hit. We’ve recently been watching the follow-up series, set in 1986, and imaginatively called Deutschland ’86. Deutschland ’89, set in the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall, has just come out, and I dare say we’ll get to it at some point.

In the five years since we watched Deutschland ’83 I’d unfortunately forgotten everything about the plot, as well as all the names, motivations and back stories of every single character. This happens a lot. I can reread a book from a few years ago, and it might as well be new to me. I can watch films and only towards the end remember that, yes, I’ve seen it already. Indeed, one of the reasons for writing this blog is so I can remember what I’ve done with my spare time for past X amount of years.

Jonas Nay plays Martin Rauch, a young former East German border patrol guard, who at the start of the series is in hiding in Anglola, teaching children English, after going undercover in West Germany in 1983.

Maria Schrader plays Martin’s implausibly and expensively modish aunt Leonora Rauch, who is also his former handler (it’s all a bit nepotistic). She’s now operating out of South Africa, where she is professionally and romantically embroiled with Rose Seithathi, an African National Congress operative.

Martin’s inscrutable dad Walter Schweppenstette (Sylvester Groth) is also Lenora’s former boss, while former school-teacher Annett Schneider (Sonja Gerhardt), Martin’s high-gloss former fiancée and the mother of his presumed child (there’s at least a 50% chance Max is his), is now an intelligence agent.

This second series, the storyline of which is based around East Germany’s increasingly desperate attempts to get its hands on hard (convertible) currency (illicit weapons’ sales, the sale of blood), is supplemented by a documentary, Comrades and Cash, which I haven’t seen. It seeks to explain the various real life nefarious and ethically dubious money-spinning business activities employed by the GDR in the 80s.

The plot can be confusing at times, especially, as I say, when you can’t remember what happened before, but the drama is engagingly super-slick, and intermittently drily humorous, with an excellent soundtrack. I think my German has risen from the dead slightly, too, as I could definitely understand the odd phrase by episode 9, whereas it was all utterly incomprehensible to me at episode 1 (I got a good German GCSE … albeit in 1990 … and have never used the language since). So, definitely watch it, but from season 1, and don’t leave a gap of five years before watching the next series.

Review no 147: Ghanaian artist Ibrahim Mahama

AFRICA

It’s been over a year since I’ve set foot in a gallery, although I look forward to a time when I can get back on buses and trains and inside public buildings without anxiety. Meanwhile, I’m still getting my art fix at home.

This month I’ve been looking at the work of Ibrahim Mahama, born in Tampale, Ghana, a young artist who is known for his monumental, sometimes richly textural installations, made out of layered materials, including repurposed jute sacking(historically used for transporting food) and recycled objects and materials collected from all over Ghana. Like the Bulgarian artist Christo, who I wrote about last year, Mahama has even used jute sacking, stitched together on an enormous scale, to cover entire buildings.

The work focuses on the post-colonial experience in Ghana, but avoids being dry or heavy-going. For example, the Parliament of Ghosts exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester in 2019 created a kind of legislative chamber full of archival documents and other artefacts from early on in the creation of the independent state, such as old railway seating and storage cabinets.

Although the work sometimes focuses on the unrealised dreams of independence, it also pays testimony to the valuable human qualities of endeavour, resilience and hopefulness – even in the absence of any direct representation of the body. Instead the well-used artefacts evoke the absent bodies of those involved in the nation’s transition and history. Through the re-working of everyday, quietly momentous objects, that have been an intrinsic part of the lives of so many people, Mahama’s work demonstrates a sort of collective humanity, without ever lapsing into sentimentality.

Review no 146: Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev (Russia)

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis

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This Russian novel could hardly be more topical, particularly given the recent much-reported assassination attempt on opposition figure Alexei Navalny, as well as the bodged Skripal poisonings in the UK in 2018. First published in Russian in 2020, Untraceable has just been published in English translation by indie publisher Head of Zeus.

The novel is a bit of “deadly game of cat and mouse” as a cheesy ad might say, and the prose itself can be a bit airport novel, although it veers closer to literary than genre fiction with its focus on moral degeneracy and characterization as much as on plot, with both main characters haunted by spectres of the past.

Professor Kalitin has spent his working life developing and perfecting an incredibly powerful – and untraceable – neurotoxin, Neophyte (clearly modelled on Novichok). The labour of love to which the creepy Kalitin has dedicated himself in his covert laboratories in the Russian Far East (on “the Island”) means he has an unfathomable amount of blood on his hands, both animal and human, and a Neophyte-related incident even led to the accidental death of his wife, Vera. Having defected from Russia, he has lived a secret life under a new identity for many years, squirrelled away in Germany. However, after he is invited to take part in a German investigation into a political poisoning, his cover is blown and he has the distinct sense that time is beginning to run out for him.

Meanwhile, Shershnev, another iniquitous individual, is tasked with travelling from Russia to take Kalitin out with his own chemical weapon. Along with an accomplice, Shershnev sets out on a murderous road trip, although events do not unfold as smoothly as planned.

Untraceable is a slow-burn thriller, not fast-paced like Tom Rob Smith’s Booker-longlisted, edge-of-the-seat Child 44., of which it is faintly resonant. While the two main characters are tainted by a form of moral poison, the merciless toxin developed by Professor Kalitin feels like another principal character in its slipperiness and its terrible potency.

He began his attempts to tame his creation, solve the problems of preservation, stability – without that he could not hope for certification, for its production.

But Neophyte turned out to be excessively sensitive ad high-spirited. If he changed the original composition just an iota, the whole became unbalanced. Neophyte was born to be just as it was; limited in use because of its wildness, its instant passion to kill.

With the book’s uncompromising illumination of moral corruption and the continued impact of the Soviet legacy on modern Russia, I was not surprised to learn that Lebedev no longer lives in Moscow, or even Russia (he is based in Berlin). While Neophyte might not leave a detectable trace, the taint it leaves on those who weaponize it is indelible. As one short-lived character, Kazarnovsky, notes: “I don’t know about the enemies, but we’re doing a very good job of destroying ourselves“.

March 2021 Round-up

I’ve read a few great books this month, after splurging on a handful of newly released hardbacks (well, the library’s shut so…. and never mind all the unread books around the house).

The most enjoyable read was Canadian author Emily St Mandel’s 2020 release The Glass Hotel. I’d loved Station Eleven a few years back, which was feat of enlightening dystopia, following as it did a group of itinerant Shakespearean actors through a world rebuilding itself after a devastating deadly flu pandemic (the “Georgia flu”).

The Glass Hotel is very different and, at the most basic level, considers the fall-out from a Richard Madoff-type Ponzi scheme. It is way more than that though. It’s a cleverly layered tale of our capacity for complacency, and for simultaneously knowing and not-knowing, and the haunting narrative gradually creates a dreamlike, faintly hallucinatory world. The book is backdropped by the surreal glass hotel of the title, glowing on a Canadian promontory and only reachable by boat, where a young woman, Vincent, works as a bartender. It’s a haunting and philosophical study of resilience and morality, and best of all is utterly immersive and a pleasure to read – I recommend this book.

Also recommended, though possibly triggering, is the newly published A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies. I gobble up books that touch on traumas that resonate with my own. I had treatment for PTSD after my youngest daughter’s birth and I still wince if anyone says the word “midwife” in my presence. I find it cathartic to understand that other people have shared similarly traumatic experiences.

Widely described as autofiction rather than memoir, previously Booker-longlisted Ho Davies’ book is a beautifully written account of life touched by tragedy, when he and his wife are compelled to abort a much-wanted baby that is strongly suspected (but not guaranteed) to be carrying a devastating genetic mutation. Wracked with guilt, but simultaneously convinced of the inevitability of the decision, the father in the book, a university professor and writer (just as Ho Davies is) struggles to come to terms with the decision they made and with their loss. A much-wanted baby boy, an only child, follows, but his development is delayed in subtle and distressing ways that involve a coming to terms with adjusted assumptions. This book is a little like a prose poem, and reminded me a little of the incredible Blue Sky July, an elegiac and moving account (I sobbed throughout that book when it came out in 2008) of a mother’s experience of raising a small child born with a brain injury.

Last but most definitely not least, I found the TV series The Terror, first shown in the USA in 2018 and currently showing on iplayer in the UK, ridiculously enjoyable. Based on a novel by Dan Cummins, it is an imagined account of the doomed Arctic expedition led by Captain John Franklin in the 1840s, when the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus sought to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage. ]

The cast is outstanding, with Jared Harris (also from the excellent Chernobyl) as the compelling Captain Francis Crozier and Tobias Menzies as Commander James Fitzjames. Paul Ready (the hapless dad from Motherland – which as I see it is basically a documentary) plays Dr Harry Goodsir and the thrilling Adam Nagaitis plays Cornelius Hickey. It’s just the right side of silly, with an excellent baddy and some good stiff upper lip captaining going on, plus some overblown supernatural horror stuff dropped in to zhuzh things up should they start to get too introspective. By the end I was on the edge of my seat, and I’m bereft now it’s finished. I haven’t been so entertained for ages. Or at least not since The Great finished.

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