Would the real Finland please stand up?

Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I want to be
Pony trekking or camping
Or just watching TV
Finland, Finland, Finland
It’s the country for me

You’re so near to Russia
So far from Japan
Quite a long way from Cairo
Lots of miles from Vietnam

Monty Python, ‘Finland Song’

My first youthful awareness of Finland came via the affectionate musical tribute by the Monty Python team. A keen ‘Fin-o-phile’ ever since, I’ve very much enjoyed reading crime novels set amongst its ‘mountains so lofty’ and ‘treetops so tall’. Along the way, via the novels of Jan Costin Wagner, I’ve developed an image of the country in line with Nordic writers such as Indridason (Iceland): freezing cold, austerly beautiful, and as melancholy as can be. This brief excerpt from Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions illustrates the point: ‘Then he got to his feet, walked down the dimly lit corridor and through the driving snow to his car. He drove to Lenaniemi. As the ferry made the crossing, he stood by the rail in the icy wind’ (… before visiting his wife’s grave and keeping a late-night appointment with a bottle of vodka). 

However, I’ve just had an interesting reading experience that’s challenged this romantic-melancholic view of Finland. Having finished – and very much enjoyed – Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions (see review here), I embarked on James Thompson’s Snow Angels (HarperCollins 2010), another police procedural, set in northern Finland (Lapland), which presents a much grittier image of a country characterised by high rates of violent crime: ‘Per capita, our murder rate is about the same as most American big cities. The over-whelming majority of our murders are intimate events. We kill the people we love, our husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and friends, almost always in drunken rages’. The kaamos, the ‘darkness’ that falls over the land for long winter months, is shown to trigger high levels of depression, drinking, violence and suicide, and the way that it’s depicted here moves well beyond melancholy to something altogether darker.   

These divergent depictions of Finland ‘clashed’ for me as a reader, particularly as I read the novels more or less one after the other. Much of that sense of disjunction lay in the very different tone of the novels, which in turn reflected the contrasting literary traditions in which the authors had chosen to locate themselves. Costin Wagner (German with a Finnish wife) draws heavily on the model of Nordic crime established by writers such as Sjowall and Wahloo, Mankell, and Indridason (which reveals the underbelly of society, but has a highly controlled, pared-down style, and an introverted and melancholic feel). In contrast, Thompson (American with a Finnish wife) has channelled the grit and tone of the American thriller to create a hybrid text which his publicity blurb describes as ‘nordic noir’. It’s an often engaging, but very hard-hitting first-person narrative with frequent, extreme depictions of violence (a topic for another post another time).

The contrast between these texts and their depictions of Finland acts as a useful brake for those of us who might unquestioningly accept the portrait of any given country in a crime novel – or indeed any novel – as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ (literature as travel guide). It’s a timely reminder of an obvious point: that authors provide representations of countries in their novels, which are often very beguiling or sell well in the literary marketplace, but which may or may not be accurate in the eyes of their citizens. And it’s not necessarily a case of ‘would the real Finland please stand up’: some Finns might identify more strongly with Costin Wagner’s portrayal of Finland than Thompson’s, or vice versa, or even think that both have validity. 

A final thought: how intriguing that neither author is Finnish by birth. Given this, one could argue that neither has a true ‘native’ insight into Finnish society, although the counter-argument that the ‘outsider’ can often see you more clearly than you see yourself could equally be applied. In the case of Costin Wagner and Thompson, it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of a complex ‘insider-outsider’ status, as foreigners who have married Finns, lived in the country for a number of years and learned the language (respect!). This dual status grants the authors a highly valuable perspective from which to write about Finland, albeit in strikingly different ways.

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38 thoughts on “Would the real Finland please stand up?

  1. First, thanks for reminding me to let our library director know she needs to order the next in the Inspector Vaara seriies, if she hasn’t. I really enjoyed the first two in the series and was wondering when the third was coming out. Second, I think you bring up a very interesting point about how we view different countries through the eyes of the narrators who describe them. I’m wondering with all this emphasis on Scandinavian crime fiction recently, if Scandinavia in general isn’t getting a bad rap. Do they really have that many more murders than other places? However, I guess the same could be said for other places as well: Inspector Morse’s Oxford comes to mind. I’d really hate to go to university there. 😉

    • You’re very welcome for the reminder, unfinishedperson, and thanks for your comment!

      I see your point about Scandinavia getting a bad rap, but I guess that would be true of most countries depicted in crime novels, simply by virtue of the genre’s emphasis on murder and violence. As you point out, the same is true of Morse’s Oxford, and I’d certainly never want to go anywhere near Miss Marples’ St. Mary Mead. Perhaps we should read some non-crime fiction every now and then to get a slightly less bloody point-of-view? Interestingly, as I was reading the Thompson, I was wondering how the pretty negative portrayal of Finns in the novel has gone down in Finland (if it’s been published there, that is). To be fair, there are a number of other nationalities that come off quite badly in the novel as well…

  2. What an interesting post! I’ve read books by these two authors and agree they depict rather different “Finlands”. I suppose that England or Scotland as depicted by native crime authors would seem rather different places depending on the author, too 😉

    (And picking up a point in your post, I always enjoy, in perhaps not the sense intended by the author, reading books set in England by non-English authors, eg Elizabeth George. Perhaps Americans feel the same way about Jack Reacher/Lee Child).

    I have read crime novels by actual Finnish authors though translated versions are a bit thin on the ground. I read one of the “Raid” books, Raid and the Blackest Sheep, by Harri Nykanen, To Steal Her Love by Matti Joensuu and one of the Helsinki Homicide books, Against the Wall, by Jarkko Sipilia. I would say that all three of these are recognisably part of the Nordic crime you write as being established by Sjowall/Wahloo, but the Sipilia is more in the hard-boiled territory of US crime fiction (as recently evidenced in the Swedish “Easy Money” by Jens Lapidus or Lepidus, which was like no Sweden I’ve ever read in a Swedish crime novel, of which I’ve read many – very much modelled on the US noir/hard boiled type of novel – Sipilla’s are not this bleak at all, probably because they are about cops who are essentially the good guys, and Lapidus does not bother with mealy-mouthed aspects like “good” guys).

    PS my essays into Finnish crime fiction are gathered here: http://petronareviews.wordpress.com/category/finland/

    • Oh, Maxine – thank you! You have no idea how happy I am to see all of these recommendations for Finnish authors, because this is a huge gap in my reading that I’m now desperate to fill. I’ll be popping over to browse your Finnish posts before you can say ‘Hullu Poro’ (crazy reindeer). Thanks again, and yes, I think the same would apply to depictions of any city/country (for example, in the case of Edinburgh: Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street novels vs Rankin’s Rebus series…).

      That’s a very interesting point you make about Finnish authors blending Nordic and American crime fictions traditions as well. Will bear that in mind as I read.

      • Thanks! There is also Sofi Oskanssen who I believe is Finnish and did write Purge in Finnish. However, the book is set mainly in Estonia & a bit in Russia, though I think Finland is mentioned a couple of times. Actually I probably enjoyed this book more than any of the above, though it isn’t really “crime fiction” more of a psychological historical novel. And apart from the language originally written in, not Finnish either!

      • Just when we thought things couldn’t get more complex! Happily, I was given Purge as a Christmas present, so that’s one that I can tuck into straight away. It’s one I’ve had my eye on for a long while.

  3. Excellent post, Mrs. P! Very insightful. I personally would love to read a mystery by a Finnish woman writing about Finland (Leena Lehtolainen, anyone? Please?) From what I’ve heard, we’d see yet another perspective, and one less shaped by American noir/hardboiled styles.

    Fascinating country – and while the language and some of its culture are quite different from Scandinavian countries to the west, and its location and history (particularly with Russia and the Baltics) has distinguished it from Sweden etc., it has the same tolerant social egalitarianism with strong programs for healthcare, education, child welfare, and the environment – and guarantees internet access as a human right, not an easy feat in a country with a lot of remote communities in the north.

    I wouldn’t like kaamos, but apart from that, I’d move there in a second. And spend the rest of my life studying the challenging language but not mastering it, no doubt!

    • Thanks, Barbara, and thanks too for your very interesting comment. I quite agree that a female-authored Finnish novel would be great – I’m presuming that translation is still sporadic, and that perhaps the male authors who channel an American style are viewed as more marketable?

      I’ve only been to Finland once – Helsinki in the summer – and so don’t feel like I’ve experienced the ‘proper’ Finland of winter and darkness and vodka. I suspect that I’d find kaamos extremely hard (it must mess in all sorts of ways with the body and mind), and indeed Thompson uses Vaara’s wife Kate to communicate the difficulties that outsiders have adjusting to the arctic winter very effectively. But there’s much to admire socially as you say – they seem to have got education absolutely right if the PISA reports are to be believed.

  4. Mrs P I’ve also only been to Finland once, twenty years ago and during the winter. The cold would probably kill me now, but then the ice and snow made the countryside very beautiful and Helsinki look very Russian [which of course it was as an autonomous Grand Duchy before the Russian Revolution]. I have two Finnish books to read on my TBR list the Jan Costin Wagner [The Winter of the Lions] and Harri Nykanen [Nights of Awe] so that will be an excuse to post my photos of Finland. I didn’t take many as it was so cold.

  5. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head by suggesting that we need to be careful when we read that we don’t give to much credence to the notion that the atmosphere or setting created by a single book or author can be the lone representative of that country. I mean much as I love Adrian Hyland’s GUNSHOT ROAD I wouldn’t like anyone to imagine it is THE book that represents Australia. It is very Australian and it depicts accurately one slice of Australian life – a given moment and place if you like – but it doesn’t represent my day to day existence or the Australia of most of us really (given it is set in a remote part of the country that most Australians have never even visited).

    I read THE WINTER OF THE LIONS and Thompson’s second book LUCIFER’S TEARS in very close succession last month and I too was struck by the fact that they could have been talking about two different countries in some ways. I think it’s a good thing…a marvellous thing really…and I’m sure both are the real Finland…for some people or at some moment in time.

    • Thanks very much, Bernadette. I agree with you – and hadn’t quite seen it in that way before – it is a marvellous thing. There are countless realities within every society and country as experienced by numerous different people, and these contrasting novels illuminate those pluralities so very well. And as you point out, it’s a ‘given moment’ as well as a given place. Novels set in the historical past have yet another layer of complexity and plurality to explore – I’m reminded of that famous saying: ‘The past is another country; they do things differently there’.

      P.S. Gunshot Road sounds very interesting – will have to check it out – thanks!

  6. Thank you Bernadette! How can there be one view of a country that stands as an absolute truth about it? I often read reviews about works by Scandinavian Crime Wave or ‘Nordic noir’ authors, and many imply or state ourtight that by writing about a country from a certain view and/or in a certain genre, the work is an all-encompassing indictment of that country, for good or ill. There is no one truth about any nation. There are as many truths as there are people that populate a country. The quote above is a truth about murder here, but much happens in our winter wonderland besides murder.

    When a crime novel is set in, say, Los Angeles, does anyone believe the work is a blanket statement that LA is a terrible place, or one step further, that the entire U.S. is a bleak and dangerous place to live in? Why is this thought train reserved for other countries? Or perhaps only for the Nordic countries. I’ve never seen a review stating that Ian Rankin believes Scotland a bleak and terrible place because of his dark Rebus series. There are many wonderful things about Finland–or I wouldn’t have spent the past fourteen years in it–and those stories are written here (in Finland), but seldom translated and sold in English. Those stories should be told, but I write what most people consider dark noir, and so not by me. It’s just not what I do. But I’m glad that others do.

    A comment above questioned whether Snow Angels has been published in Finland. It was published here prior to U.S., sold very well, and garnered a great deal of media attention. I was already fairly well-known as a writer in Finland when it came out. The second in the Inspector Vaara series, Lucifer’s Tears, has also performed well in Finland, both in sales and critically.

    A last thought. I notice that much Scandinavian Crime Wave fiction revolves around serial killers. This is so fictional that it approaches fantasy. Serial killers are as rare as hen’s teeth in the Nordic region. Makes for fun reading though! Might write one myself.

    Best, James

    • Many thanks for dropping by, James, and for taking the time to comment. I’m out and about at the moment, stocking up on winter woollies for a trip to Berlin, but will respond properly once I’m back. I have a couple of questions for you…!

    • Right, I’m back – now suitably kitted out for the -17 degrees that may await me in Berlin next week (nothing on Finnish winter temperatures, I know).

      James, many thanks again for your comments, and I wonder if I could make one comment in return and then ask a couple of questions:

      I absolutely agree with you that no one novel should be read as a blanket statement about a country or an all-encompassing indictment. But I suppose one extra point might be made here, namely that when a book is well-written and convincingly portrays a society or country, a reader is likely to accept that depiction as accurate or real (all part of a good reading experience – we as readers *want* to believe in the world that the author creates). It sometimes requires a fair bit of self-awareness on the part of readers to pull back and remind ourselves that this is a literary representation and one viewpoint amongst many (especially if the novel is really good!).

      Question: could you say a little more about why you chose to tell the Vaara stories in the US police procedural / thriller tradition? Was it that you felt a literary affinity with this form due to your background, or that it was a particularly good fit for the story you wanted to tell, or that it made sense in commercial terms (Finnish/US crossover as unique selling point)? All, none or other?

      And: you mentioned that Snow Angels was published first in Finland and received quite a bit of media attention. As well as being reviewed as a piece of crime fiction, was there a wider reaction to the way in which you had portrayed Finnish society (or at least the bits that you showed)? I’d be very interested to hear if there was, especially as your depiction is a quite hard-hitting one.

      Kiitos 🙂

      • Dear Mrs. P, in reply to your questions:
        (OK, this wasn’t a question) You wrote: a reader is likely to accept that depiction as accurate or real.

        I certainly hope so! If the reader can’t suspend disbelief, the writer hasn’t done a good job. This goes back to my earlier post about truths. Every place has many truths. A junkie living in a cardboard box has a perception of a place. A financier living two blocks away in a penthouse apartment with a six figure income has another. An example: prior to the publication of Snow Angels, a test reader, son of a diplomat, and fellow student at the university, told me he felt the novel was pushing the limits of the bleakness–booze, depression, mental illness–in this society. I took him on a little tour and showed him some places I frequented to people watch. He retracted his statement. I had shown him truths he didn’t know existed.

        Mrs P: Question: could you say a little more about why you chose to tell the Vaara stories in the US police procedural / thriller tradition? Was it that you felt a literary affinity with this form due to your background, or that it was a particularly good fit for the story you wanted to tell, or that it made sense in commercial terms (Finnish/US crossover as unique selling point)? All, none or other?

        I’m uncertain about what you mean in differentiating between the US and Nordic police procedural traditions. I’m sure long arguments could be had and PhD theses written in an attempt to define this. I would say, simply put, that historically, the difference is that the weight of the texts, social issues vs. focus on the crime, is that Nordic crime is weighted more heavily on social problems than traditional US crime. Emphasis on SIMPLY PUT. Snow Angels follows that Nordic tradition of examining social problems in some depth, while I think the style of prose more closely follows the US noir tradition. And in that sense, having read hundreds of US and UK procedurals no doubt had a great influence on the writing style. About particularly good fit: In that regard, my choice to tell the story through the eyes of the protagonist in the present tense was probably the most important. I wanted the story narrowly focused and filtered through the thought processes of a Finnish man. At least in part, I think, to challenge myself and see if I could convincingly pull it off for the Finnish readership (at the time, my only readership). Truly, I’m not that calculating. My stories seem to find me, rather than the other way around, and they seem to come to life of their own accord, in their own way. I write noir because it suits my needs thematically, allows me to explore them in a way I feel compelled to, and no doubt for deeper seated psychological reasons I myself don’t understand. As to commercial reasons. As I said, the book was written prior to becoming an international author. Very few authors can make a living writing in a country with so small a population. It’s a Finnish/US crossover because I’m a Finnish/US crossover, a cultural mutt. I suppose the novel is too.

        Mrs P: And: you mentioned that Snow Angels was published first in Finland and received quite a bit of media attention. As well as being reviewed as a piece of crime fiction, was there a wider reaction to the way in which you had portrayed Finnish society (or at least the bits that you showed)?

        Very few Finnish writers have been widely published internationally. When a non-Finn writing as a domestic Finnish author about Finland broke internationally, it generated much media interest in both me as a person and the novel. In truth, Snow Angels is a novel that explores traditional Finnish storytelling themes: Literature, theatre, music, et al are overwhelmingly about alcoholism, suicide, depression, murder, nature and the environment. The themes are so common that at a certain point, they begin to cloy.However, Snow Angels doesn’t romanticize as does much Finnlit. It’s stark and brutal and lays bare the flesh after the whisper of the scalpel, so to speak, from the view of the outside observer. Yes, there was quite a strong reaction. Some people, but far fewer than I expected, expressed outrage that I exposed Finland to the world as such a harsh place. Some foreigners wrote to tell me how much they identified with the problems Kate encounters. Some people from the region of the setting wrote to me to tell me that I had captured the spirit of the place, especially from their childhoods. Some people thanked me for saying certain things out loud about forbidden topics, such as domestic violence. Sofi Oksanen dared discuss it on Danish television and the nation went into outrage. I don’t know why, as statistics back her up. Many Finns just want the family secrets kept in the family, again, so to speak. I’ve taken far less flack than she has about such things, maybe because she’s a more prominent figure. But to sum up, I received far more positive reactions than negative ones. And still do, as the series progresses.

        A couple unsolicited thoughts. A problem with Finnish literature and exposing it to the world is difficulty of translation. Finnish and English approaches to language differ so much that I can have opposing opinions about an issue, depending on which language I consider it in. Language, after all, is a huge factor in defining our inner worlds. For this reason, writing about Finland in English is challenging. I often have difficulty articulating even the most basic concepts, love for instance, from a Finnish mindset. The concept just isn’t the same, as say, in the U.S. There is no English vocabulary equivalent to the Finnish word for love. Articulating Finnish concepts in English, I believe, helps me as a writer, forces me to focus the lens, doesn’t allow me to take anything for granted.

        Probably the smartest thing I did in designing Snow Angels was creating the character of Kate. Giving a Finnish man an American wife forces him to consider the world they live in so he can articulate it for her. Finland is quirkier, more removed from U.S. culture than most of Scandinavia. Sweden, for instance. The existence of Kate allows me to explicate certain aspects of culture that would be mystifying without doing so, and doing so without a reason would force me to lecture. It may be that some Finnlit doesn’t carry for foreign readers because the original texts didn’t take those foreign readers into account, and strict translations can leave them perplexed about aspects of society and many other things. You’re probably thinking, “I thought he wrote it for a Finnish audience. What’s all this about foreign readers?” There are two versions of each book. One for Finns. One for the rest of the world.

        Thanks Mrs P!

      • Enormous thanks, James, for taking the time to answer these questions so fully, and for your additional comments and observations.

        Just to come back briefly to some of your main points:
        > It’s very helpful to see how your crime fiction takes up established Finnish story-telling themes and fits into the larger contexts of ‘Finnlit’
        > Your description of Finnish reader reactions to your portrait of society is absolutely fascinating.
        > As a reader, I can second how effective a role Kate plays within the text in terms of allowing Vaara to explain Finnish culture to her (and by extension to us) as an outsider. And your point about the challenges of linguistic and cultural translation is well taken.

        Now then: I can’t help but pick up on your closing remarks. There are two versions of each book – one for Finns and one for rest of the world?! So two versions tailored for two sets of national markets? Does the Finnish version have less explanatory / introductory material about Finnish culture? Or are there other differences too?

        This will be the very LAST lot of questions, I promise, but don’t feel obliged to answer if you’ve had enough of the interrogation for now!

        Many thanks again for contributing so valuably to this blog post – I’m sure that readers of the Vaara series will be delighted to read all you have to say.

  7. Well, I only read Snow Angels, and actually, I wouldn’t put it in my top reads of 2011. It was very violent and there were way too many racist words unnecessarily. Also, I found some factual inaccuracies about countries referred to in the book, about which I emailed the author — who blamed it on the copyeditor and didn’t seem concerned. I do expect an author to do research and be accurate.
    I’ve wondered about reading Lucifer’s Tears but I’m not sure about doing that. I have so much to read already.
    I would love to read some fiction by people who are actually Finnish, especially women. I hope that Leena Lehtolainen books are translated and made available over here across the pond.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Kathy. I found some of the violence depicted in Snow Angels hard to read (especially as a woman), and it’s made me think more generally about the depiction of graphic violence in crime novels, and why I sometimes accept its presence as a reader and sometimes think it’s too much. I’m mulling on all of this for a future post (with a slight nervousness as I think this debate is a bit of a minefield).

      A number of those commenting today have mentioned Leena Lehtolainen – if there are any publishers out there looking for an author to translate – we have one here for you that already has readers lining up!

  8. Not wishing to enter any frays 😉 but having read an enormous amount of translated Scandinavian crime fiction, I disagree that it revolves round serial killers. I’ve written two posts at my blog summarising Norwegian and Swedish crime fiction so won’t rehash my examples here, but there are a great many of them.

    Serial killers are a crime-fiction staple, but are not a major part of translated Scandinavian crime fiction – though there are one or two very recent, “cashing in on Stieg Larsson” type of novels, that use the device.

    One would not say that US crime fiction or UK crime fiction focuses on serial killers, though some if it is about the subject, a lot more of it is not (thankfully!).

    • Hi Maxine, not wishing to enter into any frays either, I want to preface by saying that your knowledge or Scandinavian crime fiction far exceeds my own, and that although I don’t follow your writings closely, you’ve never written anything I’ve read that I disagreed with. I have great respect for your thoughts and opinions. The same goes here. You are, however, perhaps a touch quick to take me to task. You misquoted me. I said MUCH Scandinavian crime fiction, not that the historical whole of the crime fiction of the region revolves around serial murders. Not wanting to write a book about it, in the context of a short post, I felt it was enough. I was referring, as you say, to recent work, and not the entire Nordic body of crime literature. This is a bit like the original discussion about sweeping indictments of a country from a single book. If I said U.S. crime fiction, I doubt you would assume I referred to everything written from 1840 forward.

  9. Sofi Oksanen is half Finnish, half Estonian. She was raised in Finland. PURGE sold twice as many copies as any previous novel in Finnish history, and received just about every award in this region for it that I can think of. I think she’ll be looked back on as the finest Finnish writer of this generation. I proofread the raw English translation for her, and it was perhaps the best Finnish-English translation I’ve ever seen, an achievement in itself.

  10. Hi Mrs P,
    The differences between the Finnish and foreign versions are much as you expected: things most Finns know and would bore them are edited out. A simple example would be what a particular food is or how it’s prepared. The plot lines are exactly the same. However, I take great pleasure in telling Finns things they don’t know about the country, and in pointing out things they usually don’t notice. For instance, how to pick the suicides out of the obituaries.

    BTW, my one disappointment with response to the book was that a pro-feminist theme was overlooked, never mentioned by any reviewer. I took up the issue of clitoridectomy and gave it a fairly lengthy treatment. If no one noticed, it’s my failure as a writer, but it was my intention.

    Best, James

    • Thanks very much for responding to yet another question. The idea of two versions for ‘home’ and ‘away’ markets had never occurred to me before, although it makes perfect sense when you think about it. I’m now wondering if other transnational authors do the same.

      In answer to your second point, I guess it’s difficult to predict accurately what readers and reviewers will take away from a text. I did note the clitoridectomy when reading Snow Angels, but for me it didn’t seem to be a major focus of the novel, and was absorbed as one piece of information amongst others about the victim. So it may be that this issue got crowded out in the reviews – especially as the domininant reference within the novel is to Finnish culture.

      It’s been a pleasure discussing your novel and all of these wider questions with you. Many thanks, James.

  11. You’re most welcome, and thank you! I don’t know of any other authors who write “home and away” (nice way of expressing it) versions, but localization has become more popular. Meaning the same story is told, but the names and places are changed to suit the country the novel is released in. I really think this is a terrible idea. I don’t believe it’s possible to tell a good story without taking setting into account. If there are two versions of a book, one set in Austin Texas and another in Moscow, it means that environment/upbringing, etc. have no effect on characters.

    • ‘Localization’ isn’t something I’d heard about before either and I agree that it sounds like a bad idea – essentially a short-cut to maximise sales in particular markets at the cost of proper characterisation and depth. I’d be interested to know if readers can tell when they are reading a ‘localised’ product, and whether such works do well in terms of sales / reception. Fascinating…!

  12. Pingback: Mrs Peabody’s 2012 review | Mrs. Peabody Investigates

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