Jul 23, 2010

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

White Teeth is a family saga set in (mostly) London and moving back and forth in time between the end of the Second World War and the 1990’s. The story focuses on three families: the Bangladeshi Iqbals, the Anglo-Caribbean Joneses, and the English Chalfens. Samad Iqbal moves to England after the war, and decides to look up the only person he knows in the whole of the British Isles, his old army friend Archie Jones. Achie, after a suicide attempt that takes place many years after Iqbal’s arrival but right as the novel opens, marries Clara Bowden, a young woman of Jamaican descent. Some time later, Samad and his wife Alsana have twins boys, Millat and Magid, who grow up with Archie and Clara’s daughter Irie Jones. How the lives of all three get wrapped up with Joshua Chalfen and his very English, privileged and academic family is probably best discovered in the pages of this book. Suffice to say that these three families are as different as they can be, and yet they’re also all disarmingly human, and have far more in common than one might imagine.

I won’t say more about the plot, because I fear I’d make it sound a lot more confusing and a lot less appealing than it actually is. White Teeth is a wild ride of a book, covering several decades and featuring a large cast of characters, but unlike what sometimes happens in novels with multiple storylines spanning a long period of time, all are equally riveting – and equally hilarious too. I knew White Teeth was notorious for being funny, but I confess that Zadie Smith’s humour surprised me. I read On Beauty a few years ago, which was absolutely lovely but a different sort of book altogether, and judging by the tone of that, I didn’t expect quite as much playfulness and hilarity here. That ought to teach me to quit expecting authors not to be this versatile.

White Teeth is not just funny; it’s also rich, layered, and dead serious even as it makes you burst laughing out loud. Plus it’s full of literary allusions, which are here not for the sake of making the author appear clever, but because Smith is clearly someone who absolutely delights in literature and language. They go from Shakespeare to Salman Rushdie by way of Yeats, E.M. Forster and P.G. Wodehouse, and they add further layers of meaning to what’s already an immensely rewarding novel. White Teeth reminded me of Midnight’s Children at times, and I’m sure this, along with the reference to Rushdie’s fatwa, is no accidence. Smith’s prose also reminded of E.M. Forster in the gentleness and kindness with which she draws her characters, and of Kurt Vonnegut in its tender and good-humoured examination of human folly. Furthermore, Smith is (very much like Vonnegut) an author who proves just how much potential for depth there is in comedy – a fact that sadly is still not universally acknowledged.

White Teeth is, among other things, a novel about multiculturalism – about all the ways in which diversity enriches humanity, as well as about all the potential difficulties it brings about. As I was reading it, I remembered an interview I read with Zadie Smith some time ago (sadly, I can’t recall where) in which she was asked if her decision to write multicultural fiction was a result of her own background. She answered that she hadn’t “decided” to write multicultural fiction – her books simply depicted the world as she knew it, and what seemed strange to her was that so many authors wrote books peopled solely by white characters. Needless to say, they don’t seem to get asked why they have “decided” to write novels that completely lack any sort of diversity.

I’m bringing this up because I thought it was an interesting and intelligent response, and also because it helps explain why the world she creates in White Teeth feels so absolutely natural. In any big city like London, there is so much diversity that you do have to wonder why many novels still don’t reflect this, and why it’s the ones that do that get pointed out. And just to be absolutely clear, my point here isn’t that authors who write nothing but white characters are being deliberately racist because they’re horrible, horrible human beings. What I mean to do, and what Smith’s response does so well, is draw attention to the fact that we still see white as the “default”, and that privilege really does determine how we see the world. Demanding more diversity in fiction is not a matter of “political correctness”; it’s a matter of expecting it to reflect the world accurately, because the world is not exclusively white. If we think about it, the fact that this seems to be the case in so many books, films or TV series is really what’s bizarre.

But back to White Teeth: for all the difficult and painful things it deals with – which include identity loss, racism, the consequences of clueless blind liberalism à la Chalfens, religious fundamentalism, violence, etc. – this is an immensely positive novel. Zadie Smith closely examines the causes of the anger, distrust and sense of misplacement that immigrant communities often experience, and she does so with humour and extraordinary insight. She contextualises all these problems into a wider social pattern that also includes class and social inequality, and she draws attention to the fact that when it comes to second or third-generation immigrants, often much is made of what are, in fact, universal quests for identity or classic acts of teen rebellion. For example, Millat joints KEVIN (the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation – yes, they are aware that they have an acronym problem) because he objects to how westernised and corrupt his own father has become, while Joshua Chalfen joins FATE, a radical animal rights group, to violently protest against his father’s work as a scientist. The obvious parallels between their two stories makes it clear that what we have here are simply two teenage boys rebelling against their families as they try to figure out who they are, rather than a case of Irreconcilable Cultural Differences Between the East and the West.

For a great example of how Smith uses humour to tell painful truths, make sure you read the final of the favourite passages I share at the end of this post. It’s long, I know, but I promise it’s worth it – it manages to be both hilarious and heartbreaking, and to make some excellent points about the relationship between racism and fundamentalism. But despite troubling stories like Mo’s, Millat’s or Joshua’s, Zadie Smith makes it all very much not a matter of “us” versus “them”. In the end, this really is a positive and optimistic novel. She tells a generous and kind story about people who are both very different and very much alike, and who mostly do the best they know how. And she suggests, hopefully and boldly, that we’re all going to be just fine.

Favourite passages:
Please. Do me this one, great favour, Jones. If ever you hear anyone, when you are back home – if you, if we, get back to our respective homes – if ever you hear anyone speak of the East,’ and here his voice plummeted a register, and the tone was full and sad, ‘hold your judgement. If you are told, “they are all this” or “they do this” or “their opinions are these”, withhold your judgement until the facts are upon you. Because that land they call “India” goes by a thousand names and is populated by millions, and if you think you have found two men the same amongst that multitude, then you are mistaken. It is merely a trick of the moonlight.’

Oh, there was a certain pleasure. And don’t ever underestimate people, don’t ever underestimate the pleasure they receive from viewing pain that is not their own, from delivering bad news, watching bombs fall on televisions, from listening to stifled sobs from the other end of a telephone line. Pain by itself is just Pain. But Pain + Distance can = entertainment, voyeurism, human interest, cinéma vérité, a good belly chuckle, a sympathetic smile, a raised eyebrow, disguised contempt. Alsana sensed all these and more at the other end of her telephone line as the calls flooded in – 28 May 1985 – to inform her of, to offer commiserations for, the latest cyclone.

But it makes an immigrant laugh to hear the fears of the nationalist, scared of infection, penetration, miscegenation, when this is small fry, peanuts, compared to what the immigrant fears – dissolution, disappearance. Even the unflappable Alsana Iqbal would regularly wake up in a puddle of her own sweat after a night visited by visions of Millat (generally BB; where B stands for Bengali-ness) marrying someone called Sarah (aa where ‘a’ stands for Aryan), result in a child called Michael (Ba), who in turn marries somebody called Lucy (aa), leaving Alsana with a legacy of unrecognizable great-grandchildren (Aaaaaaa!), their Bengali-ness thoroughly diluted, genotype hidden by phenotype. It is both the most irrational and natural feeling in the world.

The second reason for Mo’s conversion was more personal. Violence. Violence and theft. For eighteen years Mo had owned the most famous halal butchers in North London, so famous that he had been able to buy the next door property and expand into a sweetshop/butchers. And in this period in which he ran the two establishments, he had been a victim of serious physical attacks and robbery, without fail, three times a year. Now, that figure doesn’t include the numerous punches to the head, quick smacks with a crowbar, shifty kicks in the groin or anything else that had failed to draw blood. No: serious violence. Mo had been knifed a total of five times (Ah), lost the tips of tree fingers (Eeeesh), had both legs and arms broken (Oooow), his feet set on fire (jiii), his teeth kicked out (ka-tooof), and an air-gun bullet (ping) embedded on his thankfully fleshy posterior. Boof. And Mo was a big man. A big man with attitude. (…) These various people had various objections to him: he was a Paki (try telling a huge drunk Office Superworld checkout boy that you’re Bangladeshi); he gave half his cornershop up to selling weird Paki meat; he had a quaff; he liked Elvis (‘You like Elvis, then? Do yer? Eh, Paki? Do yer?’); the price of his cigarettes; his distance from home (‘Why don’t you go back to your own country?’ ‘But then how will I serve you cigarettes?’ Boof); or just the look on his face. But they all had one thing in common, these people. They were all white. And this simple fact had done more to politicize Mo over the years than all the party broadcasts, rallies and petitions the world had to offer. It had brought him more securely within the fold of his faith than even a visitation by angel Jabrail could have achieved. (…) He was tired of almost dying. When KEVIN gave Mo a leaflet saying there was a war going on, he thought: no shit. At last someone was speaking his language. Mo had been in the frontline of that war for eighteen years. And KEVIN seemed to understand that it wasn’t enough – his kids doing well, going to a nice school, having tennis lessons, too pale skinned to ever have a hand laid on them in their lives. Good. But not good enough. He wanted a little payback. For himself.
Other opinions:
Book Addiction
Shelf Love (Teresa)
Shelf Love (Jenny)
In Spring It is the Dawn
Bibliofreak Blog

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  1. I loved reading White Teeth but found On Beauty a little more uncomfortable.
    Your comments on 'white being default' is so true. This thought isn't going to make much sense but I'm going to try and put it into words. It's about how one imagines a person in a novel. Unless there is a really vivid description of how a person looks I find, embarrassingly, my default so often is a white person and I have to remind my imagination that that's not correct. End of ramble.

  2. Its an interesting point about 'white being default' but that does seem to be the norm and books depicting multiculturalism do tend to stick out in the mind more. Hearts and minds I read ealier this year I thought was a good depiction of London.

    Anyway back to the book, I have On Beauty on my shelf and I have no idea what its about.

  3. You have totally changed my perception of this book. I had no idea it went back to WW II and I would never have thought it would make me laugh. I bought it a couple of years back and I have always been a bit put off by it. Definitely one that needs to be moved up the pile.

  4. I read this when it was first published way back when mainly due to the hype and was really surprised by how interesting and well written it was. I also saw the TV series which was also hysterical. Hope you get to watch it if you get a chance. I haven't read anything else by Zadie Smith, I'm not sure why, maybe it's because I enjoyed White Teeth so much. Must remedy the sitatuation.

  5. I read Changing My Mind earlier this year, and I thought Zadie Smith was a wonderful writer, but I've still been on the fence about reading her other books. I think the thing is that I get her mixed up with Zoe Heller, and I liked-didn't-love Notes on a Scandal. Now must read her!

  6. I loved this book, too. Especially the part in which Irie goes on to have furious, vindictive sex with Magid and he just lets her.

  7. I bought this but haven't read it yet. I'm glad to hear that it's funny, as my impressions of On Beauty are probably part of the reason for why I can't seem to pick up White Teeth. On Beauty was recommended to me as a happy book at a time when I needed to be cheered up and I didn't find it happy at all... White Teeth sounds different!

  8. You see now I am in conflict as I have this book but its been wavering on my 'to the charity shop pile' for a while as I read On Beauty a while back and just really didn't like it at all and so now am less keen to try Zadie's work even though I know lots of people who loved it. It does sound like it needs to be rescued and popped back on the TBR though.

  9. First, I had this book a couple years ago and just couldn't get into it. It really intimidates me and I've never been able to read another Zadie Smith.

    Second, it's funny because I don't see white as the default. Because of the way I grew up, I see hispanic as the default. When I write stories, all the characters are automatically hispanic unless I change them up, even if I don't talk about race. I find it interesting that other people interpret them as white BECAUSE I don't mention race...

  10. I love serious books that don't take themselves too seriously and I love books that feature diverse characters because that's how the world really is. This sounds fabulous!

  11. I actually think it's because TV, films, and books make white as the "default setting" that it's why it's percieved as so. A vicious cycle since they just continue to add to the standard thought.

  12. I haven't read anything by Smith but this looks like one I might like. White (and Christian) by default -- is that because the West controls so much of the media?

  13. Ohh I'm excited! I have this and On Beauty both on the TBR.. cannot wait!

  14. I thought this one was really interesting, but I didn't love it. I went on to read On Beauty and thought it was fantastic, definitely my favorite of the two. Beauty is a modern re-telling of Howard's End, so if you read that first the book will pack a better punch.

  15. Fantastic review, Nymeth! This is a book that I really love, and I agree that Smith's humour and insights into the world she creates is spot on. I loved how multi-faceted a portrait of London she presents to her readers - a far cry from the whitewashed England of Victorian novels! I thought this novel brimmed with life and spirit... the only thing that let me down was the ending, which I thought was a bit jumbled and confused. But even barring that, I'd read it again in a heartbeat!

  16. This is close to but not quite the time period of my work (the thirties), but I still love moving back in time, and I have a wonderful student in summer school whose last name is Iqbal, so it makes the cultural aspect more real to me....

  17. Crazy coincidence; my partner & I are listening to the audiobook of White Teeth right now, and LOVING it! (And the narrator is amazing at voicing all of the different evolving diaspora accents involved - I think I'm enjoying the audio version even more than I would have just reading the text.) Totally agree with everything you say here about the naturalness and rich quality of the world evoked by Smith, and her humor; I'm also in awe of her ability to write a book that spans such a large swath of time, yet maintain an intimate feeling where the reader feels they are in the moment with the characters. Such a difficult balance to achieve, and she pulls it off beautifully.

    AND THE CHALFENS! Whoa. So. Amazingly. Insufferable. David and I actually had trouble falling asleep one night because we were so intent on dissecting the source of the Chalfens' pitch-perfect self-satisfaction. Holy crap.

  18. I have nothing remotely deep or insightful to add because I haven't read this one yet. But can I just say that I'm terribly excited to see that you're JUST reading it because I'm not alone! Yay!

    Have been eyeing it on the shelves lately, so I'll bump it up in light of your review.

  19. Multiple, equally interesting plot lines sounds great! I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who didn't read this the moment it came out. :)

  20. I absolutely LOVE White Teeth. And On Beauty. Now craving her recent book of essays. Must seek out more Zadie Smith...

  21. I think after your review, I´ll finally have to dust off my copy and read it! :)

    This only white characters in books and tv is weird. And I can´t quite make my mind up about it. On the hand I really agree that it´s unnatural, especially in today´s world. But I also sometimes read books that only feature white characters with something like relief. Not because of the absence of non-white characters, but because of the absence of the issues that seem to come with it. Because whites are basically unmarked. And as a non-white person myself, I don´t always want to deal with racism and the problems of multiculturalism. And sadly it seems that we´re still at this point, where to read about universal issues, we need to go for books with white characters. Not always of course, but more often than not.

    And I´m really hoping I´m getting my point across.

  22. I just finished reading this tonight! It is very accomplished and has given me a lot to think about, but I was a little disappointed by the male-centric vibe.

    I felt that the female characters were not explored in anywhere near the same depth as the male characters. I wanted to know more about Clara and Irie!

  23. Okay, okay, I'll revisit this one: I've forgotten most of what you mention here, though I do agree about the Rushdie-esque overtones. It is an important book, for all of the reasons you mention, because Smith was one of the first young writers to present multicultural London as it is (or was at the time), and because it was a first novel.
    On Beauty was all right, but I know I enjoyed this one more. So I promise I'll get back to it!
    Thank you for another inspiring review.

  24. I had no idea that White Teeth is a funny book! Huh. I wonder why I thought it was serious. Maybe because high praise often bypasses funny books? I've got a copy of White Teeth somewhere around here. Like Andi, I'm somewhat relieved to find that I'm not the only one who has put it off for way too long and I'll have to dig for mine. It sounds like the kind of book I'd really love to read, right this moment.

  25. As you know, I really didn't enjoy this book. But I appreciate your analysis and I think a lot of the things you have to say about it are spot-on. :)

  26. I recently listened to - and loved - On Beauty on audiobook, and immediately put White Teeth on my list of must-reads. Your review is wonderful - sounds like I would love this one, too.

  27. Okay, Ana! I MUST KNOW. Which brother was it, in your opinion?

  28. Hmmm! Sounds good! I had no idea at all that this book had any humor to it. I didn't expect that! There was a BBC production of this awhile ago that was on Masterpiece Theatre and I purposely didn't watch much of it because I knew I wanted to read it some day. But what I saw looked really good. And this sounds really good :)

  29. So now that you've read them both, which one should I read first?! lol I loved her essay collection last year, so I've been wanting to read some of her fiction but I couldn't figure out where to start. :)

  30. Great review, Ana! I haven't read 'White Teeth' yet, but after reading you review, I have moved it to the top of my 'TBR' list :) Archie Jones, Clara Bowden and Irie Jones look suspiciously like Zadie Smith's parents and herself :) One of the things that I have noticed during the past few years of my reading is that the first novel of a novelist is normally inspired very much either by his / her life or profession.

    I enjoyed reading your comment on how Zadie Smith replied to the 'multicultural fiction' question. I remember her saying something like this in her essay 'Their Eyes Were Watching God : What does Soulful mean?' (which is there in her collection 'Changing My Mind'). Her observation goes like this : "White readers often believe they are colour blind" and then she adds in the footnote to this line : "Until they read books featuring non-white characters. I once overheard a young white man at a book festival say to his friend, 'Have you read the new Kureishi? Same old thing - loads of Indian people.' To which you want to reply, 'Have you read the new Franzen? Same old thing - loads of white people.'"

    One of the things that I find interesting is that while reading fiction by Japanese writers (e.g. Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogawa, Natsuo Kirino, Banana Yoshimoto), readers or critics seem to read the book for what it is about and don't think about whether the characters are Japanese or multicultural etc., while books by authors of African origin or South Asian origin or Central American origin seem to inspire discussions on multiculturalism of the characters. I am not able to fathom why. (Why not treat all books like Japanese books? Is it because Japanese writers avoid writing about multiculturalism while others focus on this issue?)

  31. I loved this book when I read it ,bout time it came out ,not read any of her other books but this is a true masterpiece of modern british society like a fly caught in amber ,sure it ll be well read for many years to come ,all the best

  32. oh, I'm so happy you liked this! It really is one of my all-time favorites!

  33. I loved this one...right up to the last few pages, which seemed, to me, like an unreasonably quick writer's trick: the red ribbon tied up tightly and sharply, despite the bulges in the package beneath. It put me off reading her for a good bit, but I am about to give her another try with On Beauty.

  34. WOW! I have this one somewhere on my shelves (must organize!), but it's never made it to the top of my reading list for some reason. I didn't realize that Smith used humor--for some reason I always thought of her as someone who was a rather serious writer. I guess it's something I just assumed from the subject matter.

  35. I had this recommended it to me years ago, but suspected it of being a novel only admired in literary circles. I'm glad to hear you liked it; now maybe I will read it.

  36. Joan Hunter Dunn: I think what you said does make sense, and I find that the same happens to me :\ I just assume characters are white unless told otherwise.

    Jessica: On Beauty is a different sort of book really, but I also loved it. And yes, depictions of multiculturalism do stand out because there are fewer of them, but I wish it weren't so.

    Vivienne: Do move it up the pile!

    Sakura: I'm glad to hear the TV series is also good, as I was curious about it.

    Jenny: Yes you must! I think I might have liked On Beauty even more than this, but both are so good.

    Alessandra: That was a cool scene, yes :P

    Joanna: They're really very different, so don't let your impression of On Beauty keep you from reading this!

    Simon: I loved On Beauty, but as I was just telling Joanna I think they're different enough that it's more than possible to hate it and still love this!

    Amanda: As I was telling Joan Hunter Dunn, I'm definitely guilty of that - if a character's ethnicity is not specified, or even if the characterisation is subtle, I imagine them white. It's hard to tell if this is because I am white and grew up surrounded by white people, or if like Ladytink says there's a vicious circle at work :\

    Kathy: It is, and for those exact reasons you mention :)

    Jen: I think you're definitely on to something there.

    Beth F: It could be, but then again even in the west the numbers of people of colour are far from insignificant. The media, entertainment and publishing industries really should reflect that more... it's almost bizarre than they don't.

    claire, I really hope you enjoy them both!

    Avid Reader: Yes, I think I like On Beauty more too. I actually read it before Howards End, though, so I'd probably appreciate it even more now that I've read Forster!

    Steph: Thank you! I can definitely see your point about the ending, but I enjoyed the ride so much I didn't much mind.

    Shelley: The 1930's also appeal to me more, but there's quite a lot to the decades Smith covers here!

    Emily: Argh! The Chalfens! How do they not explode out of sheer insufferableness? And yet she makes them such fun to read about. I'm very glad to hear you're enjoying this too :)

    Andi: lol, I always think I'm the last person to read these books, and yet I never am :P

  37. you make this one sound very good, I hadnt heard of it before. I like that first passage. great review :)


  38. you make this one sound very good, I hadnt heard of it before. I like that first passage. great review :)


  39. I've read mixed reviews of this one so I had shied away from reading it. The fact that the book offers humor as well as the complex story makes me want to read it more.

  40. We read and discussed this book in my face to face book club. We hardly ever agree on books but we all adored this one! I would love to read it again some day, it was that good. (I rarely re-read books).

  41. I have this book on my TBR pile and it has been moved up because of this review. I want to try and read it before September (not at all sure if I'll be able to do so).

  42. Another wonderful review that gives me much to think about. For whatever reason, I'd heard this book's title a lot but never really knew what it was about until I stopped and read this review. Now, it's definitely on my to-read list.

  43. Trisha: I swear, I'm always the last person to read these super popular books :P

    Emily Jane: So must I!

    Bina: I see what you're saying, and it's definitely part of the problem. We associate books with characters of colour with "issue" books, and it's true that a lot of the time they are - but it doesn't have to be that way. A book about people simply being people doesn't HAVE to have white characters. I'm not sure if you're familiar with the blog Color Online, but Susan, who created it, is always drawing attention to this. Books about people of colour can and should be about anything, really.

    Tea Lady: Somehow I didn't get that vibe - I see your point when it comes to Clara, but there was enough Irie for me. I also liked the focus on Clara's mother/Irie's grandmother. But anyway, thank you for giving me something else to think about!

    ds: I actually think I enjoyed On Beauty a bit more, but I loved them both. Now I'm wondering about The Autograph Man, which nobody ever seems to talk about!

    Nancy: I think you're on to something - funny books don't tend to get this much praise, OR to be taken this seriously. I'm glad this was an exception!

    Heather: To each their own, of course! I'm glad you enjoyed reading my thoughts anyway :) I also very often get a lot out of reviews that are completely different from my own. Part of the fun of blogging!

    Carrie: Thank you! I think you will!

    Renay: I don't know! We'll wonder about it forever and ever, won't we?

    Chris: Yep, I'm a book first person too :P Anyway, yep, humour galore :D

    Eva: I really loved them both, but I think On Beauty did more for me. I know you're a Forster fan, so you might enjoy what it does with Howards End.

    Vishy: Yeah, the idea of "colour-blindness" is one I have a lot of problems with. It's usually just something people who can have the luxury to ignore race say to avoid talking about it, which is a great shame. Not being racist is NOT being unaware of people's skin colour, ethnicity and cultural background - it's acknowledging that these differences exist, but don't make anyone any less human. That's another excellent quote from Changing my Mind, btw... I so need to read it! And that's a good point about Japanese fiction. Maybe it's because it tends to be set in Japan, while many of the others are diaspora books? The ones that make it to the hands of Western readers, anyway.

    Stu: Very true!

    J.T. Oldfield: Which just goes to show you have good taste :P

    Buried in Print: Now that I think about it, the ending WAS a bit rushed and overly neat, but not enough to ruin the book for me. Do give her another try - On Beauty is really completely different from this.

    Trish: It's funny how many other commenters said the same! I wonder if it is because she's taken seriously, and most comic novelists aren't no matter how much depth there is to their work. *coughTerryPratchettcough*

    Jeanne: You know, I suspect that might be more true of On Beauty than of this. But I loved it anyway :P

    Naida: Thank you! I hope you'll enjoy it if you decide to pick it up.

    Kathleen: Don't shy away! It's so worth your time; you'll see.

    Teddy Rose: I bet the discussion was interesting!

    Iris: I'm glad to hear you're moving it up, and I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!

    Christy: Thank you for the kind words, and I hope you'll enjoy the book :)

  44. My husband bought me this book ages ago, and I have no idea why I've never read it. It just seemed so serious, but now that I know there's humor as well, hopefully I'll be moved to pick it up soon.

  45. I'm reading "On Beauty" right now, and am impressed at how smart and observant it is. Usually I decide whether I'll read more of an author's works after I finish the book, but from your review I think I'd like "White Teeth" also!


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