Latin American Science Fiction Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

Latin American Science Fiction Reviews by Evelyn C. Leeper

All reviews copyright 2003-2016 Evelyn C. Leeper.

Iberian writers:

imaginary books:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/06/2009]

In an essay on Jorge Luis Borges ("The Literature of Exhaustion"), John Barth wrote, "Not long ago, incidentally, in a footnote to a scholarly edition of Sir Thomas Browne (THE URN BURIAL, I believe it was), I came upon a perfect Borges datum, reminiscent of Tlön's self-realization: the actual case of a book called THE THREE IMPOSTORS, alluded to in Browne's RELIGIO MEDICI among other places. THE THREE IMPOSTORS is a non-existent blasphemous treatise against Moses, Christ, and Mohammed, which in the seventeenth century was widely held to exist, or to have once existed. Commentators attributed it variously to Boccaccio, Pietro Aretino, Giordano Bruno, and Tommaso Campanella, and though no one, Browne included, had ever seen a copy of it, it was frequently cited, refuted, railed against, and generally discussed as if everyone had read it--until, sure enough, in the eighteenth century a spurious work appeared with a forged date of 1598 and the title DE TRIBUS IMPOSTORIBUS. It's a wonder that Borges doesn't mention this work, as he seems to have read absolutely everything, including all books that don't exist, and Browne is a particular favorite of his. In fact, the narrator of 'Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius' declares at the end: '... English and French and mere Spanish will disppear from the globe. The world will be Tlön. I pay no attention to all this and go on revising, in the still days at the Adrogué hotel, an uncertain Quevedian translation (which I do not intend to publish) of Browne's URN BURIAL."

Whether this is the first example of a fictitious book deceiving people, I don't know, but it seems to be the precursor of "The Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred"; "A Perfect Vacuum", "One Human Minute", and others (referenced by Stanislaw Lem); and any number of books by Herbert Quain referenced by Borges.

And of course the aside, "including all books that don't exist," hearkens back to "The Library of Babel", which contains not just all books but all possible books. In the universe of the Library, there are no books that don't exist.

Along these same lines, Barth wrote, "Borges' favorite third- century heretical sect is the Histriones--I think and hope he invented them--who believe that repetition is impossible in history and therefore live viciously in order to purge the future of the vices they commit: in other words, to exhaust the possibilities of the world in order to bring its end nearer."

Googling indicates that Barth's hope has been realized: the heresy of the Histriones is indeed a Borgesian invention (to be found in the story "The Theologians").

I have to say that of late I have found myself trapped in my own "Garden of the Forking Paths" or Borgesian labyrinth. I started out to write about the topology of the Library of Babel. As I was writing it, I found a new book about the mathematical ideas in "The Library of Babel". The bibliography of that sent me to the local college library for four books of essays on Borges. Comments in various of these essays sent me to other Borges stories, various Borges essays, and stories of Franz Kafka. At the same time, my comments on Leopoldo Lugones and Horacio Quiroga have led other people to suggest other works by these authors as well as other authors such as Santiago Dabove. The one thing that saves me is that these latter are mostly unavailable except in editions from Spain that cost three times as much for shipping as for the actual book.

So if you're wondering why this column seems to be mutating into a series on Hispanic authors, that's why.

To order any of these imaginary books from, I wish you luck!


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/12/2007]

X-RATED BLOODSUCKERS by Mario Acevedo (ISBN-13 978-0-06-083327-5, ISBN-10 0-060-83327-0) is a first-person hard-boiled detective novel with a twist: the detective is also a vampire. Frankly, it frequently seemed like too much, with the writing about the vampirism getting in the way of the writing about the detection. The plot itself deals with vampirism, which is fine, but long descriptions of the need to find blood, repetitions of how bland food is without blood, and so on, brought the story to a screeching halt (for me, anyway). Also, it could be that Acevedo is using a more colloquial Spanish than I learned, but "queen" is "reina", not "rena" (with a tilde over the 'n'), and "Chicano" refers to Mexicans, not Panamanians or other Latin Americans ("Latino" is the more general term). The work is an unusual combination of genres, and I cannot say it is bad, just that I thought there was too much for Acevedo to juggle. You may disagree.

To order X-Rated Bloodsuckers from, click here.

CITY OF THE BEASTS by Isabel Allende:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/21/2004]

Isabel Allende's CITY OF THE BEASTS (ISBN 0-06-050918-X) is a young adult novel whose hero is the fifteen-year-old Alexander Cold. Alexander has to stay with his grandmother because his mother is ill, but his grandmother is going on a journey into the Amazon jungle to look for "the Beast" and so Alexander has to go along. It's a combination of Arthur Conan Doyle's LOST WORLD and W. H. Hudson's GREEN MANSIONS, with some CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON thrown in. It's a bit too politically correct at times, with the peaceful natives who really are much wiser and more spiritual than the "civilized" people, but if you can accept that it's not a bad magical realism adventure story.

To order City of the Beasts from, click here.

ZORRO by Isabel Allende:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 08/19/2005]

Isabel Allende's ZORRO (ISBN 0-06-077897-0) continues the tradition of newer authors writing origin stories for characters (often heroes or super-heroes) whose lives were joined in media res by their original creators. So we got, for example, YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES to explain that character's background (rather poorly, I'll add). Johnston McCulley made Zorro the son of a hidalgo, but did not say much more. All his later stories were sequels. The movies embellished this background somewhat (and in fact McCulley picked up some ideas from the first movie for his later stories), but Allende has gone in a different direction, emphasizing (some might say inventing) Zorro's Indio roots (his mother here is a mestiza freedom fighter), a more equal relationship between him and Bernardo, and, most interesting, the emergence of the Zorro persona in Spain rather than in California. There's a lot about the efficacy of Indio medicine and other elements than might be labeled as too "politically correct" were it not for the fact that the whole Zorro story of someone defending the Indios from the rapacious Spanish invaders is already pretty politically correct. Much of the story takes place in Napoleanic and post-Napoleanic Spain, so if you're a fan of Bernard Cornwell's "Sharpe" series, this should fit right in. Certainly an intriguing novel, although you may disagree with the direction in which Allende has taken the character.

To order Zorro from, click here.

COSMOS LATINOS by Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilan:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/28/2003]

Andrea L. Bell and Yolanda Molina-Gavilan's COSMOS LATINOS is a good idea badly executed. I was really looking forward to the idea of seeing a sample of Latin American and Spanish science fiction, but the editors decision to put twenty-seven stories (each with a full-page biography of the author) in only 330 pages means that what you get are mostly short shorts. The longest are 36, 22, and 22 pages, meaning that many of the ones left are only three or four pages long. Jorge Luis Borges and Frederic Brown could do a great story in that length, but not many others could. (Ironically, Borges is omitted, probably because his stories are more fantastical than science fiction.) If this is a representative sampling, then my conclusion is that these authors need to work at longer lengths. If it's not, then I would have preferred longer works by fewer authors, or even (gasp!) a longer book.

To order Cosmos Latinos from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/06/2004]

Another "modern classic" was Sandra Cisneros's THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET. I suppose it can be useful as a view into a different ethnic group for most students, but at that level it seems aimed maybe too much at a juvenile level for an adult discussion group.

To order The House on Mango Street from, click here.

THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coehlo:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/29/2004]

We read Paulo Coehlo's THE ALCHEMIST (ISBN 0-062-50218-2) for our library discussion group. It seemed a very simplistic fable with the moral that one should work for one's dreams because the universe/God will help you if you do. The book was extremely popular for a while (and may still be), and generated a lot of discussion. but I cannot recommend it.

To order The Alchemist from, click here.


[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 10/10/2014]

Six years ago in Tucson I bought HOMENAJE A AGATHA CHRISTIE: EL CASO DEL COLLAR by Francisco Cuevas Cancino (ISBN-10 970-651-300- 0). I knew nothing about it other than it was a novel about Hercule Poirot. A few weeks ago Mike Duncan started discussing the French Revolution on his "Revolutions" podcast and covered "The Affair of the Necklace"; when finally I picked this book up to read it, it was quite the touch of synchronicity to discover that "El Caso del Collar" was the very same "Affair of the Necklace"!

Poirot's doctor tells him he needs a vacation, and when he goes to a travel agent, he ends up on a package tour to France. There he gets hit by a taxi and ends up in the hospital. At this point I'm thinking, "Oh, it will be like Josephine Tey's DAUGHTER OF TIME." But instead, he gets discharged and then taken in a black limousine to Versailles--but the Versailles of the Eighteenth Century. Now it was starting to look like MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. At Versailles, Marie Antoinette asks Poirot to investigate the affair and clear her name.

As if this were not artificial enough, each chapter has a "prologue" from the author's point of view in which he addresses things the reader may find "peculiar": traveling by car to the Eighteenth Century. Poirot changing hotels, and so on. (The changing of hotels seems to echo Richard Matheson's time travel approach in BID TIME RETURN.)

As if all this were not enough, Cuevas Cancino throws into the story Oscar Wilde, Richard Attenborough, and Sylvia Sim, for no good reason I could see. (Maybe I missed it in my reading of the Spanish.)

It is unlikely that anyone reading this is going to run out and read HOMENAJE A AGATHA CHRISTIE: EL CASO DEL COLLAR. Rather, these comments are more to demonstrate the worldwide popularity of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot, and of the merging of fictional detective and real-life mystery.

To order Homenaje a Agatha Christie: el caso el collar from, click here.

THE CARDINAL POINTS OF BORGES edited by Lowell Dunbar and Ivar Ivask:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/18/2011]

I finally got a chance to read THE CARDINAL POINTS OF BORGES edited by Lowell Dunbar and Ivar Ivask (ISBN 0-8061-0984-X). I had requested it through inter-library loan last May, and it arrived a couple of days into our trip to Arizona in February. (Luckily, they held it until I got back.) It is primarily essays about Jorge Luis Borges and his work but also includes a poem by Borges, three poems in honor of Borges and a "complete bibliography of literary criticism pertaining to Borges"--well, complete as of 1971, but now of course woefully out of date.

The best article by far is "At Work with Borges" by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. In it, di Giovanni describes the process of translating Borges into English, both in general and then specifically for the story "Pedro Salvadores". I will admit I am not all that familiar with the literature about the process of translating, but I would imagine this would be a very valuable and basic work.

For example, di Giovanni writes, "We agree ... that a translation should not sound like a translation. We agree that words having Anglo-Saxon roots are preferable to words of Latin origin--or, to put it another way, that the first English word suggested by the Spanish should usually be avoided (for instance, for 'solitario,' not 'solitary' but 'lonely'; for 'rigido,' not 'rigid' but 'stiff'; or, taking an illustration Borges likes to use, not 'obscure habitation' but 'dark room')."

In the explanation of "Pedro Salvadores", di Giovanni talks about how they overcame the problem of how to transmit to an American and English audience the allusions that an Argentine audience would get immediately. The Battle of Caseros, the "mazorca", the Unitarians, and blue china are as meaningful to Argentinians as the Battle of Bull Run, the Redlegs, the Unionists, and red, white, and blue wallpaper would be to us, yet just as Argenineans would probably not understand the allusions to these without help, we do not understand Borges's allusions. One doesn't want just to drop footnotes into the story, but neither does one want to add more text than is necessary, since the entire story is eight paragraphs long, less than two pages.

To order The Cardinal Points of Borges from, click here.

THE LAW OF LOVE by Laura Esquivel (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden) (Crown Publishers, ISBN 0-517-70681-4, 1995 (1996), 266pp+CD):

This novel by the author of Like Water for Chocolate is bound to be a success, no matter what I say. But for a speculative fiction audience it is worth noting that in spite of its future setting and its characters' travels to other planets, and in spite of some descriptions labeling it as science fiction, this is not science fiction--this is fantasy. The premise is that everyone goes though thousands of reincarnations, trying to match up with their "beshert." "Beshert" is Yiddish for "the person for whom you are intended and who is intended for you," a concept not easily expressed in English. There are guardian angels and mind transference and machines that read minds and a whole slew of other ideas.

There is also a CD with music tracks to be played at various points in the story. And there are illustrations in the style of graphic novels of people's dreams and memories. All this book seemed to be missing was a scratch-and-sniff card.

Maybe this is unfair. But I found the CD tracks disruptive--when I read a book I don't like having to stop, reach over, hit the start button on my CD player, listen to arias which seem to have a background of clattering cups or some such, hit the stop button at the end of the track, and go back to the book. Not to mention jumping from text to pictures and back again.

Ultimately, I found this book had too much science fiction to work as a fantasy, too much fantasy to be good science fiction, and too many gimmicks to work as a novel.

To order The Law of Love from, click here.

STRANGE FORCES: THE FANTASTIC TALES OF LEOPOLDO LUGONES by Leopoldo Lugones (translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/06/2009]

Argentina seems to be a hidden hotbed of literature of the fantastic--hidden from most English speakers, anyway. While it is true that Jorge Luis Borges is at least somewhat known to readers of the fantastic, there are two other authors whose work is notable, but who remain basically unknown. One of them is Manuel Mujica Láinez, whose best-known work translated into English is THE WANDERING UNICORN. And the other is Leopoldo Lugones.(*)

Lugones (1874-1938) was a major Latin American writer. I am lucky that my father got a Master's degree in Spanish and saved his textbooks, because it gave me a half-dozen books to research Lugones with. (Textbooks, even those thirty-five years old, are still too pricy for me to acquire these casually.) When I looked through them, I discovered many references, and even entire chapters, on Lugones.(**) But all of them concentrated on his poetry, and mentioned his prose only in passing. And part of that prose is the fascinating 1906 collection, FUERZAS EXTRAÑAS.

This has now been issued in English by the Latin American Literary Review Press as STRANGE FORCES: THE FANTASTIC TALES OF LEOPOLDO LUGONES (translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert) (ISBN-13 978-1-891270-05-5, ISBN-10 1-891270-05-2) and anyone who is a fan of Edgar Allan Poe or Nathaniel Hawthorne should seek this out. Readers of Spanish are lucky--the stories are available on-line at . And they are triply lucky, because the English-language edition omits about 15% of the original work--an essay on cosmogony in ten parts--which is included at the site (listed as "" above), and because that site also has a long introduction and copious annotations by Pedro Luis Barcia. (As compensation, perhaps, buyers of the book get a nice cover illustration of "The Visionary" by Jerry Wayne Downs.)

"The Firestorm" is a proto-disaster story, about a rain of "incandescent copper". At first it is just small bits of copper, and it stops. But then it re-appears, with more and larger pieces, and this progression continues. The story is told by a first-person narrator who has taken refuge in his stone cellar, and it is long on description but short on actual action. Although it is subtitled "Invocation of a Disembodied Spirit of Gomorrah", the quote from Leviticus would postdate the "historical" Gomorrah by several hundred years. Still, the description of the city is consistent with the time of Gomorrah. At least one person saw the descriptions as hinting at volcanoes, but it stuck me as being most reminiscent of one of the plagues of Egypt ("So there was hail, and fire mingled with the hail, very grievous, such as there was none like it in all the land of Egypt since it became a nation." - Exodus 9:24). That may be because in the Bible the description of the destruction of Gomorrah was much less detailed that that of Egypt.

"An Inexplicable Phenomenon" is the story of an out-of-body experience gone wrong. Some compare it to the sort of thing that H. P. Lovecraft wrote later, but to me it seemed more obviously similar to (and possibly inspired by) Robert Louis Stevenson's DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1886). I cannot say for sure if the Stevenson was available in Argentina in a Spanish-language edition, or if perhaps Lugones knew English, but surely at least a description of the book was available. (According to Barcia, the story was originally titled "La licantropía", but retitled to avoid confusion with what Barcia calls the "wolf man".)

"The Miracle of Saint Wilfred" is more a straight fantasy (or horror) story than a science fiction story, and therefore much more "traditional" than many of the other stories in this volume. Apparently everyone in it in with the possible exception of the two main characters was real, and events other then the actual miracle transpired pretty much as described.

"The Bloat-Toad" seems like a classic fairy tale in structure, but again with Lovecraftian overtones. It first appeared under the title "Los animals malditos", indicating that perhaps Lugones planned a series of stories based on "cursed animals." In this he would seem to presage Horacio Quiroga's CUENTOS DE SELVA and ANACONDA ("stories about the fierce battle between reptiles and poisonous vipers"), published in 1918 and 1921 respectively. However, there is a very important translation/typographical error in "The Bloat-Toad", since it makes no sense for the old woman to tell the narrator that it is a good thing he did not keep the bloat-toad, when in fact he did keep it, and it is a good thing that he did. (And indeed, checking the original on-line, the line is "Gracias a Dios que no lo hayas dejado!"--"Thank God that you did not leave it behind!")

"Metamusic" leaves the realm of fantasy for hard science fiction. It is about an invention that can transform music--or any sound--into colors. The narrator's inventor friend explains how this is possible in early Argentinian "tecnoparloteo" (a word I just coined for "technobable", which I cannot find in my English-Spanish dictionary for some reason :-) ). In any case, he explains that all that our senses detect are just vibrations of varying wavelengths. Heat is just a different wavelength of color, and so on. It's a performance worthy of the early issues of "Amazing Stories" magazine. (In fact, it inspired me to go back and read John W. Campbell's THE BLACK STAR PASSES from 1930, which I always think of as an exemplar of this category.) The notion of a correspondence between sounds and colors apparently goes back a long way (according to Barcia) and we see it even today, the best recent example being CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND.

The best part of this story for a mathematician is the hand-waving about how various numbers are critical to the invention. For example, the inventor explains that 27 is important because it is the sum of the cubes 1 and 8, the "lineals" 2 and 3, and the "planars" 4 and 9, and 36 is the total of the harmonic numbers. (Heck, I could do better than that: 36 is the product of the first three squares (1x4x9) and also is the sum of the first three cubes (1+8+27).) Thirty-six certainly has mystical connections, e.g., the lamed wufniks, the "thirty-six righteous men whose mission is to justify the world to God."

(I am not sure what "lineals" and "planars" are in English, or for that matter, what "lineales" and "planos" are in Spanish. What makes sense is that lineals are prime numbers, and planars are squares, but there are other perfectly good words for those in both languages.)

It is worth noting that Lugones gives all this description of how all the senses are really aspects of each other with talking about synesthesia. Then again, synesthesia may not have been identified until after Lugones wrote this. This story also has another translation slip--"Juan" is almost always translated as "John", but in one spot, it is left as "Juan".

"The Omega Force" is another hard science fiction story, about the ultimate destructive force, and full of more techno-babble. According to Barcia, the ending is ambiguous, though I must admit that when I first read it, I did not see two interpretations. (In the original book, this was apparently the first story.)

"Origins of the Flood", like "The Firestorm", is a story in which we are receiving part of the narration from a spirit from the past. It is the most Lovecraftian of Lugones's stories, with the story of an earlier race of, if not "Great Old Ones", at least beings who could certainly fill that niche. Unfortunately, Lugones's science (primarily chemistry) here is so ill-informed that it's almost impossible for a modern audience to read it with a straight face. Still, it manages to remind one not only of Lovecraft, but also of aspects of Olaf Stapledon's writing (primarily the vast expanse of time covered).

"The Horses of Abdera" would seem to owe a debt to Jonathan Swift's GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, although clearly it also draws from various slave revolts and proletarian uprisings. The ending is a bit unsatisfactory, unless Lugones trying to say that no human force can stop such an uprising. (And since that is not true, at least in the case of slave revolts, it makes it even more unclear.) In any case, one needs to know that Abdera was founded by one of the people involved in Hercules's labor with the Mares of Diomedes to get all the allusions here.

"Viola Acherontia" is about a poisonous flower and seems reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Rappaccini's Daughter". Of course, developing poisonous plants is a not entirely uncommon science fiction plot, yet there is something in Lugones's style that moves it away from the "expository lumps" that one might think would make it hard science fiction and closer to the dark romanticism of Hawthorne.

"Yzur" is considered by some a forerunner (though not a precursor) to Edger Rice Burroughs's "Tarzan" books.

And this story is a perfect example of the pitfalls or problems of translation. Gilbert Alter-Gilbert's translation says, "I bought the ape at an auction of property," but then switches to "the lack of articulate language in monkeys," "monkeys once were men," and other references to monkeys, until he gets to "the chimpanzee (which is what Yzur was)." My first reaction is that Lugones doesn't seem to know the difference between monkeys (tails) and apes (no tails), chimpanzees being apes. But then I pause, and check, and in Spanish both "ape" and "monkey" are called "momo". (When you get down to the species level, there are separate words for "chimpanzee", "orangutan", and "gibbon".) When I check the Spanish, Lugones has used "mono" and "chimpancé". Alter-Gilbert, however, has decided to translate "mono" first as "ape" and then as "monkey", even though the latter is basically incorrect in English. My feeling is that he should have translated "mono" as "ape" throughout, since I believe that Lugones was referring primarily to apes, not monkeys, though "primate" would be an acceptable substitute (albeit more scientific than literary).

A similar translation problem (in reverse) occurred in the true story fictionalized in THE BALLAD OF GREGORIO CORTEZ: a bad translator could not distinguish between "caballo" (horse or stallion) and "yegua" (mare).

And of course, my comment earlier on "forerunner" and "precursor" is very much related to this, since in English we have two words, one Latinate and one English, which have slightly different meanings, while in Spanish, "precursor" has to serve for both.

Speaking of translation, Alter-Gilbert has to translate a very language-specific sentence here, where the narrator talks about teaching vowels by using words that contain them: "a con papa; e con leche; i con vino; o con coco; u con azúcar," Obviously, for English this requires changes, and it becomes "a with potato, e with beet, i with pie, o with cocoa, and u with prune." The ability to use single-syllable words actually helps the English, though retaining "potato" for "a" seems odd--why not "cake"?

"The Pillar of Salt" is, not surprisingly, about Lot's wife and a monk who is tempted by the Devil to bring her back to life. The ending is pure Gothic, with a single word too horrying to tell and all that. The title in Spanish is "La estatua de sal", and at first I thought that Lugones was making the "remains" of Lot's wife more human-shaped than the Bible indicated, but again it turns out that the original Spanish is the clue--in this case, the Spanish of the 1569 "Biblia del Oso" translated by Casiodoro de Reina and those following. In the Spanish, Lot's wife becomes not a "pillar" of salt, but a "statue" of salt, so the humanoid shape is already implied.

In "Psychon " the scientist is turning thoughts into matter--yet another science fiction story. And yet another "translation" problem of sorts arises here. In Spanish, the character talks about something being at "-237^3" (where "^" is the degree symbol. In this story this is represented as "-267 degrees 3", where the correct representation I believe should be "-237.3 degrees".

So the stories here fall into three categories. There are the Biblical/religious/mythological ones: "The Firestorm", "The Miracle of Saint Wilfred", "The Horses of Abdera", and "The Pillar of Salt". There are the science fictional ones: "An Inexplicable Phenomenon", "Metamusic", "The Omega Force", "Origins of the Flood", "Viola Acherontia", "Yzur", and "Psychon". And there is one fairy tale: "The Bloat-Toad". So Lugones straddles the fence (if fence there be) between fantasy and science fiction (or "scientific romance", as it probably would have been called in his time). In any case, he is an author well worth seeking by fans of works of the fantastic.

(*) A fourth fantastical author is Borges's sometime-collaborator, Adolfo Bioy Casares, whose science fiction work, LA INVENCIÓN DE MOREL (THE INVENTION OF MOREL), I will be reviewing at some point in the future. And the back blurb of STRANGE FORCES names a fifth, Horacio Quiroga, and compares Lugones to him. I will write more about Quiroga next week.

(**) Ironically, these books cover Lugones in far greater detail than they do Borges, although today Borges is famous and Lugones is all but forgotten. In LITERATURA HISPANOAMERICANA (the fourth volume of HISTORIA DE LA LITERATURA ESPAÑOLA) by Angel Valbuena Briones, Lugones gets a twenty-page chapter and two dozen other casual references, while Borges gets only eight passing references, six of them about his literary criticism rather than his own writings.

(The only other real commentary I found on Lugones's fantastical work was a blog by Carlos McKey (, which I found useful in generating some ideas for this article.)

To order Strange Forces from, click here.

DOM CASMURRO by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 12/22/2006]

DOM CASMURRO by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, translated by John Gledson (ISBN 0-19-510308-4) is known for its "eccentric and wildly unpredictable narrative style." I do not know if it had gone on my to-read list because someone had suggested it had an unreliable narrator (which I find interesting), or because I had read something which recommended several Brazilian authors for their odd styles. (I know I had the Brazilian author Fernando Pessoa on my list from the same time.) In DOM CASMURRO, the narrator is not unreliable, but is definitely quirky, prone to digressions, and self-aware, often addressing the reader directly.

One of the things that struck me was that in Chapter LXXII, the narrator proposes that "all plays should begin with their endings. Othello would kill himself and Desdemona in the first act, the three following ones would be given over to the slow and decreasing process of jealousy, and the last would be left with the initial scenes of the threat from the Turks, the explanations of Othello and Desdemona, and the good advice of the subtle Iago: 'Put money in thy purse.' In this way, the spectator, on the one hand, would find in the theater the regular puzzle that the newspapers give him, for the final acts would explain the denouement of the first, as a kind of witty conceit; and, on the other hand, he would go to bed with a happy impression of tenderness and love." All this is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick's COUNTERCLOCK WORLD, of Martin Amis's TIME'S ARROW, MEMENTO, and even of the much more mainstream BETRAYAL. [Mark also suggested THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING, depending on your point of view.] Of course, some of those assume the actual backwards flow of time, while others merely adopt a reversal of time in the narration. MEMENTO and BETRAYAL embody the "puzzle" aspect, but TIME'S ARROW definitely emphasizes the idea of going from unhappiness to happiness.

[As an aside, this is the third reference to Othello I read in a single week. One expects it, of course, in a book about Shakespeare, and is not surprised to find it in a book about reading literature through the lens of biology, but finding it in an 19th century Brazilian novel is a bit unexpected.]

To order Dom Casmurro from, click here.

BORGES Y LA MATEMÁTICA by Guillermo Martínez:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 04/16/2010]

BORGES Y LA MATEMATICA by Guillermo Martínez (ISBN-13 978-950-731-514-5) is two lectures on Jorge Luis Borges's use of mathematics and a series of essays on mathematical subjects in general. Whether all of Borges's use of mathematics was conscious on Borges's part is not always clear, but the book is fascinating.

For example, after explaining the infinity of rational numbers between zero and one, Martínez draws a parallel between this and the Book of Sand, that book of an infinite number of infinitely thin pages. Just as no matter where you are on the number line (as long as you are not at zero), there are always an infinite number of rational numbers between you and zero, so it is that whatever page you are on, there are always more pages between you and the front cover.

Martínez also discusses infinity, Russell's Paradox, and the Library of Babel; talks about an article by Borges entitled "The Fourth Dimension"; describes what he calls "recursive objects"; compares the generic, the concrete, and abstraction; and in general takes a variety of mathematical concepts and applies them to the works of Borges.

All this takes up about 85 pages, which would be somewhat skimpy for a book, so Martínez fills it out with eleven more essays on other mathematical topics and reviews of mathematical books. These include the golem and artificial intelligence, Fermat's Last Theorem, the parallel postulate of Euclid, the "Pythagoras Twins" studied by Oliver Sacks, etc. One rarely finds books of mathematical essays in the United States (at least not in my library or bookstores near me), although books of science essays seem to abound. And, alas, this book is not going to help solve that, because it was not published in the United States, but in Spain, and is in Spanish. The one thing about reading mathematical essays in Spanish is that a lot of the words are cognates of English, and even when not, one can often extrapolate the meanings of some words by the rest of the sentence (for example, "even" or "odd").

To order Borges y la matemática from, click here.

THE OXFORD MURDERS by Guillermo Martínez:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/11/2005]

Guillermo Martinez is a mathematician, but his book THE OXFORD MURDERS (ISBN 0-349-11721-7) is not a math book but a mystery, albeit one dealing with mathematicians and mathematical clues. Unfortunately, he gets a couple of details wrong. At one point, for example, one character is planning a conference and says, "Andrew Wiles thinks he can prove Fermat's last conjecture." (page 109) This occurs several weeks before the conference where Wiles did in fact prove it. But at that point Wiles had told only one or two other people that he was working on Fermat's conjecture--even the conference planners had no idea what his topic was. It was in only the last couple of weeks before the conference when word began to leak out. Another character talks about "propositions that can be neither proved or refuted starting from axioms. . . ." (page 49), and asks, "Why do mathematicians not encounter . . . any of these indeterminable propositions?" But they do-- the classic case is whether an order of infinity exists between that of the rational numbers and that of the reals. The mystery is a variation on something that has been done before, though with a twist. (The twist is somewhat obvious, I think.) The Pythagorean implications of all this are laid on in large explanatory lumps, and while they are integral to the story (no pun intended) I'm not sure they will appear to the general mystery-reading audience.

(And as another example of synchronicity, we were watching a movie about the historic Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh. We had an interruption, and I picked up this book, only to discover when I read the next two pages that the main characters suddenly started talking about Burke and Hare!)

To order The Oxford Murders from, click here.

THE TANGO SINGER by Tomas Eloy Martinez (translated by Anne McLean):

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/07/2007]

Authors often find themselves the center of other people's novels--or they would find themselves if they were still alive, because, generally, dead authors are chosen (for obvious reasons). So one can have a series of mysteries centering around the works of various classic authors (e.g., Edith Skom's) or a series with a famous author as the detective (e.g., Peter Heck with Mark Twain), or a book in which the main character is a graduate student working on a thesis centering around a particular author. The latter is the case with THE TANGO SINGER by Tomas Eloy Martinez (translated by Anne McLean) (ISBN-13 978-1-58234-601-4, ISBN-10 1-58234-601-1). The protagonist, Bruce Cadogan, is a graduate student in New York writing his dissertation on Jorge Luis Borges's essays on the origins of the tango. (See, you knew I would end up writing about Borges in late summer--it's tradition!) Cadogan goes to Buenos Aires in June 2001 for six months (this lets the author have an American protagonist while at the same time getting him thousands of miles from New York for 9/11 and three months after). Though a completely random set of events, Cadogan finds himself living in the rooming house that is also the home of Borges's "Aleph": that point from which the entire universe is visible. Cadogan, however, is more concerned with trying to find Julio Martel, a legendary but elusive tango singer.

To order The Tango Singer from, click here.

Spanish Dictionaries:

[From the MT VOID, 01/30/2009]

When I first studied Spanish, "The University of Chicago Spanish- English English-Spanish Dictionary" was the dictionary, at least if one did not want to spend mucho dolares for an academic volume. My old Cardinal edition saw much use and was starting to fall apart, so when I saw a more recent [third] edition (1981, ISBN-10 0-671-50853-9) in the thrift shop for a dime, I jumped at it. Shortly before this I had bought "The American Heritage Spanish Dictionary [Second Edition]" (which is also Spanish-English and English-Spanish) (2000, ISBN-10 0-618-04873-1) there, also for a dime. Initially, I did not like the American Heritage one, partly because it alphabetized both English and Spanish sections according to the English alphabet, and I had finally gotten use to looking thing up according to the Spanish alphabet. In Spanish, "ch" is considered a single letter following "c", and "ll" one following "l", so "chiste" would be after "comprar" and "llama" after "luz". But not in the American Heritage edition. ("ñ" does come after "n", probably because it is clearly a single letter, although I believe the tilde on top started out as a second "n".) Lest you think this a trivial complaint, I'll point out that since I have one dictionary in the den, another in the bedroom, and a third in the living room, this quirk on the part of the American Heritage edition means that I have to keep thinking about which dictionary I am using in order to look up some words.

However, I rapidly changed my mind about the editions. This was perhaps influenced by the fact that the University of Chicago edition I bought was missing a signature of pages, including most of the words starting with the letter "a". But even ignoring that, the American Heritage had many more words. All too often I would go to look up a word in the University of Chicago edition only to find that it was not there, and that I had to turn to the American Heritage edition instead. (One example was "tatarabuelo", meaning "great-great-grandfather").

The bottom line is that if I had to recommend one of these, it would be the American Heritage edition.

And a side-note on using dictionaries in other languages: I never quite realized how much I take for granted in using an English dictionary. For example, when looking up a word starting with "n", I know I have to look slightly more than halfway through, while "f" is maybe 20% in. But in another language, all this changes.

For example, the halfway point in my English disctionary is "masthead", while in Spanish it is "gotera". And while the words starting with "a" are 6% of the English dictionary, they are 11.5% of the Spanish one.

(In English the letters' frequencies are in the order "etaonrishdl": in Spanish, "eaosrnidlc".)

THE DECAPITATED CHICKEN AND OTHER STORIES by Horacio Quiroga (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden) (ISBN-13 978-0-299-19834-3, ISBN-10 0-299-19834-0):

[From MT VOID, 02/13/2009]

Last week I mentioned in my review of Leopoldo Lugones's STRANGE FORCES that the back blurb for it compares Lugones with Edgar Allan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and Horacio Quiroga. Quiroga in turn has been described as an early 20th century Uruguayan surrealist, though he was the son of the Argentinian consul to Uruguay and actually spent most of his life in Argentina. His pre-occupation with death is undoubtedly the result of the tragedies of his life: his father was accidentally killed in a shotgun accident, his stepfather shot himself, in his early twenties Quiroga himself accidentally shot and killed his best friend, and Quiroga's first wife committed suicide. Quiroga himself committed suicide when he learned he had cancer.

Quiroga is not much anthologized in English. Alberto Manguel included Quiroga's story "The Feather Pillow" in his ground- breaking anthology BLACK WATER, and that story has been reprinted twice more (by Richard Dalby in DRACULA'S BROOD and in one of those Barnes & Noble "100 {adjective} Little {alliterative adjective} Stories" volumes. Another, "The Dead Man" appears in A HAMMOCK BENEATH THE MANGOES edited by Margaret Sayers Peden. However, in 1976 the University of Texas Press did publish THE DECAPITATED CHICKEN AND OTHER STORIES (ISBN-10 0-292-77514-8), translated by Margaret Sayers Peden.

Before I located a copy of that collection through inter-library loan, I could find "The Dead Man" only in its original Spanish ("El hombre muerto") in one of my father's textbooks, an anthology of Hispanic literature. I also read "La gallina degollada" ("The Decapitated Chicken") from that textbook, heavy on style, but predictable and bearing a marked resemblance to what must be a centuries-old urban legend that I heard in an old version in Scotland and have heard updated in the United States since then. But one suspects the story was less predictable and more surprising in 1909 when Quiroga wrote it.

THE DECAPITATED CHICKEN AND OTHER STORIES includes a dozen of Quiroga's best-known stories (along with pen and ink illustrations by Ed Lindlof), in chronological order. So it starts not with the title story, but with "The Feather Pillow" (1907). "The Feather Pillow" is a very short story (less than 1500 words) which works by building an atmosphere and then hitting the reader with the perfect final line.

Most of the stories have no fantastic content. "Sunstroke" (1908), "Drifting" (1912), "A Slap in the Face" (1916), and "In the Middle of the Night" (1919) are "stories of place"--stories that are about the atmosphere and feel of a particular geographical place and the people who inhabit it.

"The Pursued" (1908) has an important character named Lugones--one assumes this is an homage. It is a tale of paranoia, but somehow did not work for me.

"The Decapitated Chicken" (1909) I commented on above.

"Juan Dari&/acute;en" (1920) is definitely a fantasy story: a tiger cub adopted by a woman turns into a human boy, although still retaining some of his feline nature. I am a bit confused, though, about whether Quiroga talked about a tiger or not, since the story seems to take place in Argentina, and I did not think they had any tigers there.

"The Dead Man" (1920) is one of Quiroga's best-known story, but while people often claim some sort of fantastical content in the apparent stretching of time, I get the impression that is more a psychological trick than any sort of relativistic effect.

"Anaconda" (1921) is the longest story in the book. It is definitely the most Kiplingesque story, seemingly straight from THE JUNGLE BOOK, with only the names changed. In Quiroga, the various reptiles are named for their species, e.g., Ñacaniná. (That is also, by the way, one of the only forty-one words starting with the letter "ñ" in my 1500-page Spanish dictionary, almost all of which are South American or African in origin.)

I noted last week that Leopoldo Lugones's "Yzur" has a translation problem, in that in Spanish there is only one word "mono" meaning both "monkey" (tailed) and "ape" (not tailed). Well, in "Anaconda" there seems to be the reverse problem, where a distinction in the English translation is made between "snake" and "viper"--vipers are apparently not included in snakes. But I'm not sure if "serpiente" and "culebra" exclude "vibora"--or even if those are the words used, since I can't find the original Spanish.

I love Quiroga's turn of phrase in calling Coatiarita "the Benjamin of the Family". (This is one reason why people unfamiliar with the Western Canon cannot appreciate everything they do read.)

At times, Quiroga seems very current. One of his books was ANACONDA, described by one person as "stories about the fierce battle between reptiles and poisonous vipers." One wonders if the Sci-Fi Channel has discovered Quiroga as a source of movie ideas.

"The Incense Tree Roof" (1922) is a somewhat Kafka-esque story about bureaucracy, as well as about the jungle. And "The Son" (1935) is another non-fantasy piece, albeit with intimations of omens--but obviously the story most influenced by Quiroga's own past.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/20/2009]

And in my review of Horacio Quiroga's THE DECAPITATED CHICKEN AND OTHER STORIES, also in the 02/13/09 issue, I wrote of "Juan Darién", "... a tiger cub adopted by a woman turns into a human boy, although still retaining some of his feline nature. I am a bit confused, though, about whether Quiroga talked about a tiger or not, since the story seems to take place in Argentina, and I did not think they had any tigers there." A footnote by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria in THE OXFORD BOOK OF LATIN AMERICAN SHORT STORIES says, "The South American 'tigre', of course, is not a tiger at all, but a jaguar, erroneously named by the Spanish conquerors." So it would probably have been better to translate "tigre" as "jaguar" in Quiroga's story than to perpetuate the confusion. Apparently the conquistadors also miscalled the puma a "leon" or lion, which may be where we get the alternative name "mountain lion". All this led Carlos McReynolds (whom I mentioned earlier) to wonder if the tigers that constantly show up in Jorge Luis Borges's work are truly tigers, or whether they are jaguars. Or perhaps sometimes they are one, and sometimes the other. That would be so very Borgesian!

To order The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories from, click here.

230 DESPUÉS DE CRIST by Cristóbal Reinoso:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 02/13/2009]

I also came across a book of cartoons by Cristóbal Reinoso, 230 DESPUÉS DE CRIST (Planeta, 1974, no ISBN). "Cristo" is an Argentinian (I think) cartoonist whose cartoons often have a science fictional content. Some are funny, but some I don't get. I thought it was a cultural problem, but someone mentioned that the editor of the "New Yorker" cartoons said that for many cartoons, they get lots of letters from people who either don't get them at all, or don't think they are funny.

And some of Cristo's cartoons are puns that are funny but really don't translate well. E.g, an interpreter is translating from a Plains Indian chief to a U.S. Army officer, "He says he is not interested in peace ('la paz') because Bolivia is very far away." Well, I laughed out loud.

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 03/20/2009]

In the 02/13/09 issue, I wrote about a pun in a Spanish-language cartoon which was funny in Spanish, but not in English. (Actually, it relied on the meaning of a proper name, so it was literally untranslatable.) Well, we just watched a Spanish film in which there is a group of people in a room, with the implication that there may be a murderer among them. When it is discovered that only one of them has a cell phone, someone else says (in the subtitles), "He must be the murderer; he's the only one with a cell phone." This makes no sense in English, but in the Spanish dialogue, he is the only one with a "móvil" (a mobile phone)--and another meaning of "móvil" is "motive".


GARCIA MARQUEZ FOR BEGINNERS by Mariana Solanet, illustrated by Hector Luis Bergandi:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 09/15/2006]

I listened to GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ IN 90 MINUTES by Paul Strathern (read by Robert Whitfield) (audio ISBN 0-786-17981-3, ISBN 1-566-63622-1) as an audiobook, and my first observation is that the audiobook makes a liar of the title--it is actually slightly over two hours. This is a minor nit, perhaps, but something people buying the audiobook to fit a particular time slot might object to. Also, the reading is not very good, in that Whitfield mispronounces many words, such as "Chilean", "Cyclopean", and even "junta". The book does provide a good overview of Garcia Marquez, though it jumps around quite a bit, not giving his biographical information until well into it. (I also read GARCIA MARQUEZ FOR BEGINNERS by Mariana Solanet, illustrated by Hector Luis Bergandi (ISBN 0-86316-289-4). These two at the same time were probably overkill, especially since I am not very familiar with Garcia Marquez's work. The Solanet, in particular, seemed to assume that the reader had read all of Garcia Marquez's books. Both had a the same peculiar style of writing that I am assuming is an attempt to emulate Garcia Marquez, but to me it just seemed strange.

To order Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 90 Minutes from, click here.

To order Garcia Marquez for Beginners from, click here.

PAPER TIGERS by John Sturrock:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 05/07/2010]

PAPER TIGERS: THE IDEAL FICTIONS OF JORGE LUIS BORGES (ISBN-10 0-19-815746-0) by John Sturrock sounded interesting. After all, what could be more ideal--more perfect--than Borges's short pieces? Carefully crafted, no wasted words, ... Well, first of all, Sturrock did not have this meaning "ideal" in mind. What he was referring to was philosophical "idealism" as opposed to "realism". Realism is "the common-sense doctrine that real things exist independently of the mind," while idealism "holds that mental phenomena are all we can ever know of reality."

Okay, so it's about something other than I thought but, hey, that could be even better. True, I was having some problems following some of the deeper philosophy, but I made an effort, until I got to his discussion of "The Library of Babel":

The story dramatises an idea mooted elsewhere by Borges in his 'Note sobre (hacia) Bernard Shaw' ('A Note on (towards) Bernard Shaw'), where it is attributed to a hypothetical scholar by the name of Kurd Lasswitz (taking 'lass' to suggest 'lass'itude, or the French 'las', and '-witz' to suggest 'wits', we end up with the perfectly appropriate meaning for this name of 'Weary-wits').

There's only really one thing wrong with this theory of Borges's intention in making up this name: Kurd Lasswitz is not a "hypothetical" scholar, but a real author who really wrote a work entitled "The Universal Library". And not just any author, but the man considered the "Father of German Science Fiction". It's as if Sturrock said that H. G. Wells or Jules Verne was "hypothetical". (Or as if this were one of those "future archaeology" books, where historians in the far future have Churchill fighting Vikings, or decide that William Shakespeare must be another name for William the Conqueror.)

Some may point to Sturrock's continuation ("Lasswitz, who flourished in the late nineteenth century, like so many of the real and counterfeit authorities in Borges ...") as speaking of Lasswitz as if he were real, but of course since he is referring to "counterfeit" authorities as well, this won't hold water.

What is most depressing is that not only did Sturrock write this, but at least one editor at Oxford University Press read it and did not catch it.

Sturrock talks about presupposition, which Borges says "consists in imagining a reality more complex than the one declared to the reader and relating its derivations and effects." For example, "the chair is made of wood" presupposes that there is a chair. However, Sturrock has earlier unintentionally pointed out the flaw in this: the presupposition may be wrong. A statement about something being "attributed to the hypothetical scholar by the name of Kurd Lasswitz" presupposes a hypothetical scholar by the name of Kurd Lasswitz. But there isn't. (Or is there? Does the existence of a real scholar named Kurd Lasswitz preclude the existence of a hypothetical scholar with the same name?)

Sturrock also talks about "so many monkeys sitting at so many typewriter keyboards and hammering blindly away, must end by reproducing, Pierre Menard-like, PARADISE LOST." This misses the entire point of "Pierre Menard"--that Pierre Menard is not just copying DON QUIXOTE by rote but writing it fresh with an entirely different mindset.

Sturrock also criticizes Funes (the Memorious)'s attitude towards numbers. Borges writes, "Funes sets out to revise the two systems of representing numbers ..., replacing the orthodox forms with a random assortment of nouns and those old favorites of his, proper names." Sturrock says, "Funes's system of numbering is a poor substitute for the original." That's as may be, but it is actually what many of the "memorious" do, or at least the one described in the classic work on amazing memory by A. R. Luria, THE MIND OF OF A MNEMONIST.

On labyrinths in fictions, Sturrock says, "A Borges story is not labyrinthine; it does not face us with alternative continuations," and adds in a footnote: "It is hard to see how any sequential narrative could be truly labyrinthine, in the sense that it might make us retrace our steps and try some other path through the story every time we get to what is obviously a dead end (but what, in a narrative, is a dead end?)." This was written well before hypertext, or even its earlier relative, the "Choose-Your- Adventure" book. He then makes reference to mysteries that offer multiple solutions, but have to eliminate all but the "correct" solution. This reminded me of "April March" in "An Examination of the Works of Herbert Quain". "April March" is a novel which has a current situation, then three paths that could lead to it, each of which has three paths leading to it. Mysteries have a similar set- up. We feel they need to eliminate all but the correct one, but Quain does not. Or rather, Quain does not necessarily believe that there is only one correct path and the other eight are incorrect.

Sturrock may be confused about Kurd Lasswitz, but at least Lasswitz is not the subject of Sturrock's book. J. M. Cohen, in the first book about Borges and his work to be published in English (BORGES, 1973, Oliver & Boyd; 1974, Barnes & Noble) consistently refers to "Pierre Mesnard"!

(Cohen also refers to Borges's citation of "one of two obscure Hollywood films" in Borges's essay "Narrative Art and Magic". I find this telling, because it reminds us that Borges was a cinema fan--in fact, was even a movie reviewer for a while--and the fact that he is familiar with obscure films (DISHONORED, UNDERWORLD, and THE SHOWDOWN, if you care) reminds us of that.)

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[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 01/20/2006]

BORGES AND THE ETERNAL ORANGUTANS by Luis Fernando Verissimo (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, ISBN 0-8112-1592-X) is both a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges and a murder mystery. Vogelstein (the narrator) goes to a conference about Edgar Allan Poe, held in Buenos Aires. Also attending are Joachim Rotkopf (who has a theory about Poe as an inspiration of European literature), Xavier Urquiza (who thinks the theory is garbage), Oliver Johnson (who has another theory about Poe, Lovecraft, and the Necronomicon), a mysterious Japanese scholar, and Jorge Luis Borges himself. The solution of the murder mystery uses a lot of Borgesian techniques, and is so well-constructed that as soon as I finished the novel I went back and read it a second time. And everything still holds together. The clues are there, some muted, some so obvious that I was kicking myself that I did not get them. And even things that might seem like errors turn out not to be. I got this through inter-library loan, but I am definitely going to buy a copy.

To order Borges and the Eternal Orangutans from, click here.

THE CLUB OF ANGELS by Luis Fernando Verissimo, translated by Margaret Jull Costa:

[From "This Week's Reading", MT VOID, 11/24/2006]

THE CLUB OF ANGELS by Luis Fernando Verissimo, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (ISBN 0-8112-1500-8) is about a club of ten diners who get together once a month for a dinner. One year someone comes along who offers to cook all the dinners, but then each month one person dies right after the dinner. There are some elements of mystery in it, but it is not a traditional mystery story, nor is it as good as the author's latest book, BORGES AND THE ETERNAL ORANGUTANS. As Verissimo's BORGES AND THE ETERNAL ORANGUTANS, this book also has delightful cover art by Fernando Botero. This picture, "The Supper", is more matched to its book's subject matter than his "Hombre Fumando" was to BORGES AND THE ETERNAL ORANGUTANS.

To order The Club of Angels from, click here.

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