Sexuality and the Public Sphere
Maja Horn

"Lo tuyo es puro teatro":
Tropics, Erotics and Boleros in Luis Rafael Sánchez's novel
La importancia de llamarse Daniel Santos

In her trademark song, "Puro teatro," La Lupe, the defiant Caribbean diva from the fifties and sixties sings: Igual que en un escenario/ finges to dolor barato./ Tu drama no es necesario/ ya conozoco ese teatro…/Teatro, / lo tuyo es puro teatro/ Falsedad bien ensayada/ estudiado simulacro. A woman charges a lover of simulating emotions and acting out a rehearsed sentimentality. Yet, this song goes beyond the commonplace of the woman who feels betrayed. To accuse a man of (over-)dramatizing his emotions and being a studied imitation and 'fake,' is a significant unsettling of traditional gender roles. After all, it is femininity that is often thought of as reeking "of the artificial," while "masculinity 'just is'" (Halberstam 234). By the end of the song, the lover is further told that even if his feelings are 'true' she can no longer believe him, Y hoy que me lloras de veras/ …/perdona que no te crea,/ me parece que es teatro. The man's behavior is interpreted as always being 'no more' than a performance, a rehearsed role. To expose and exhibit masculinity as just as performative as femininity is a radical destabilization of masculinity and its naturalized position in society. Perhaps it is because of these denaturalizing effects, that Pedro Almodóvar chose "Puro teatro," sung by La Lupe, as a coda in his movie, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Quiroga 167). La Lupe's song, recontextualized by the movie, is a point of identification for queer audiences, who recognize themselves in La Lupes's controlled excess, her defiance and her assertion that life is after all nothing but puro teatro. This relationship between performance and gender roles that "Puro teatro," I want to further explore in Luis Rafael Sánchez's novel La importancia de llamarse Daniel Santos.
Frances Aparicio in her essay, "Entre la Guaracha y el Bolero: un ciclo de intertextos musicales en la nueva puertorriqueña," points out the central role that popular music plays as an intertext in Puerto Rican narrative especially in the literary work that has been published since the 1970s. Moreover, Aparicio considers the recurrent employment and evocation of popular rhythms, lyrics and performers in the works of Luis Rafael Sánchez, Ana Lydia Vega, Carmen Lugo Filippi and Manuel Ramos Otero, as one of the pivotal stylistic and thematic traits that mark a break with the previous literary generations. As Aparicio argues, the intersection and saturation of literary discourse with popular codes creates a multiply valenced and voiced text, in which no single or unifying perspective predominates, making it a significant departure from a paternalistic literary canon. Totalizing metaphors and the search for a consensus give way to a vision of Puerto Rican culture as fundamentally "conflictiva, heterorracial y polifacética" (Aparicio 74). Moreover, this integration of popular culture and everyday language into the literary text puts into question the privileged status of literature as 'high' culture that is radically separate from the expressions of everyday life. Concurrently, the use of popular music in narratives calls for and appeals to readers with a very different and much more popular and widely available 'auditive' knowledge, thus democratizing the reading process and re-defining the position of the author who no longer is the superior and distant 'father' (Aparicio 77).
Macho Camacho (1976), with its radical shift towards the popular and polysemantic can be read as initiating a break with the previous generations of writers. Luis Rafael Sánchez's following novel, La importancia de llamarse Daniel Santos, published in 1988, is, according to Frances R. Aparicio, already "el apogeo de un ciclo de textos narrativos puertorriqeños en los cuales el discurso de la música popular caribeña… asume importancia como elemento intertextual" (73-4). Daniel Santos, revolves around the figure of the bolero singer and quintessential macho latinoamericano, Daniel Santos, who originated from Puerto Rico and became popular in the 1950s, in many Latin American countries.
The bolero is a musical form popularized in Latin America in the 20th century. It is a hybrid musical form with roots in both African and European musical traditions. Moreover, it is a specifically urban phenomena that emerged in cities in Puerto Rico, Cuba and Mexico at the beginning of the 20th century. Juan Gelpí proposes that the intimacy which characterizes the bolero is a response to the urbanization and large increase in population that took place in the first decades of the 20th century in most larger Latin American cities (Gelpí, "El bolero" 20). According to Gelpí, the intimate scenario that the bolero creates, "bien podría constituir una respuesta simbólica a la despersonalización de las relaciones sociales que se produce en las ciudades modernas" (Gelpí, "El bolero" 21). The exaltation of the affective, intimate and personal counters the experiences of fragmentation and isolation that characterize urban daily life.
The intimacy of the bolero is created by its thematics of personal suffering and desire which are transmitted through the voice of the performer commonly singing in the first person singular (yo), that addresses him/herself to a second person singular (tú). The use of tú as a form of address in the lyrics creates an ambivalence, since the non-determinate and non-gendered tú becomes a site for facile identification and transference for the audience (Zavala 115). As Zavala explains in her book, Bolero: Historia de una amor, the androgynous tú makes it possible that the one who is addressed could be "hombre o mujer" and the amorous discourse be either "heterosexual u homosexual, mayoritario o minoritario" (120). Critics such as Frances Negrón-Muntaner and Jorge Quiroga, have also pointed towards this ambiguity of gender in the bolero and how that "makes it particularly susceptible to queer appropriation" (Negrón-Muntaner 70).
Jorge Quiroga in his book, Tropics of Desire: Interventions form Queer Latino America, remarks upon the reemergence of the bolero in the 1990s. According to Quiroga, this time around, the bolero "is sung in a different register," in a more specifically gay context that was not present in the 1950s and in earlier literary works that thematized the bolero, such as Cabrera Infante's Tres tristes tigres and Pedro Vergés's Sólo cenizas hallarás (151). For Quiroga, the more recent works of such writers as Manuel Puig and Luis Rafael Sánchez, signal "the beginning of a new voice" (151). Though highly personalized and intimate, the bolero can be a vehicle for making the non-heteronormative desires public, allowing for the creation of sentimental communities of belonging (Quiroga 149). The bolero "'verifies' personal suffering and renders it culturally legitimate," and legible as a point of identification for those whose erotic and sexual choices do not find facile public affirmation (Negrón-Muntaner 71).
The bolero allows for identifications that go beyond the traditional heternormative script, and also, generally, resists the "normalizing discourses … of marriage and family," propounding instead a love that is forbidden or 'sinful.'(Negrón-Muntaner 71). Yet, despite these subversive potentialities, the bolero also commonly reiterates and essentializes some very conventional gender roles. As Quiroga points out, with regards to the bolero, "once the theatrical mask has been ripped away, what we have is essential gender forms" (156). In the bolero, masculinity defines itself in contrast to and in response to what is perceived as properly female, and "letra y música son formas de situarse como hombres y abordar a la mujer" (Zavala 45-6). Woman is subordinate and merely an 'other' through which men are able to position and define themselves as men and even create a homosociality through a shared discourse of suffering and pain (Zavala 45).
Consequently, it can be said that the bolero contains both a "transgressive and recuperative impulse," at once working towards an integration of the audience into the body social and its dominant norms and enabling a resistance precisely by displacing "the social onto the personal theatrically" (Negrón-Mutaner 72). This displacement of the social onto the personal, makes the personal, especially if it does not conform to the dominant social script, always already political; the personal, becoming then, a point of departure for imagining other communities and even a "new order of things" (Negrón-Mutaner 72). Recuperative and transgressive impulses of the bolero both manifest themselves in Luis Rafael Sánchez's novel, Daniel Santos, and are embodied in the figure of the bolero singer Daniel Santos who is, according to Aparicio, is " ícono de … contradicciones" (86).
These dialogical tensions already posit themselves in regards to the genre of Sánchez's narrative which he himself postulates as a fabulación, placing it somewhere between biography and fiction, yet resisting being enclosed in either genre. By designating his narrative as fabulación, Sánchez less appeals to the conventional narrative form of the fable then to an oral tradition of fabular, telling and re-telling popular myths and chisme. The traditional fable as it emerged in the European tradition is rigorously regulated in its structure and evolves around the transmission of a moral imperative or mandate. Sánchez's text does not make any outwardly apparent or straightforward moral claims; this is particularly obvious in the representation of Daniel Santos. Julio Ortega, in his discussion of Daniel Santos, remarks upon the apparently paradoxical fact that in the novel Daniel Santos,"un personaje de la negatividad (bohemio machista, quizá includo delictivo)," becomes "todo un paradigma positivo de la cultura que se supuestamente se expresa en él y él encarna" (36-7). The exalted machismo of Daniel Santos takes on mythical dimensions in the novel and is given "un valor moderno y asertivo, positivo y crítico" (Ortega 36-7). Yet, 'ser un macho todo riesgo' is also critiqued in the text (though only once explicitly) as "[una] enfermedad terminal, … que indecora, bestializa" (Sánchez 132). This ambivalence towards machismo might seem paradoxical at first, but as I will show, it also points towards the particular notion of masculinity that the novel creates.
The novel has three main parts. The first two parts, "Las palomas del milagro" and "Vivir en varón," are given the appearance of transcriptions of interviews and discussions about the infamous Daniel Santos that the narrator has with different individuals throughout the Latin American continent. Author and narrator are collapsed and appear to be the same person, to which the interviewees refer in varying degrees of familiarity and respect. Comments about Daniel Santos are reproduced, but also are the comments these interlocutors apparently made about the author/narrator himself. Yet, it is precisely through what appears to be 'only' side comments about the narrator himself that he becomes another central presence and character in the text. For example, in the transcription of one of the conversation with a Nuyorican called Guango Orta, the following statements are made about the narrator/author,
[a]unque se tertulie que te sobran ocurrencias pero que te faltan ideas. Aunque se chismee que eres el cruce satisfactorio entre el charmer y el bluffer. Aunque se maligne que el éxito inmerecido y desorbitado de La guaracha del Macho Camacho te ha dejado manco y mudo. Aunque se sotovocee que eres, seguramente un homo ludens porquer eres, inseguramente, un homo closet. El único escritor regio, apocalíptico y triunfoso de la literatura antillana eres tú. (Sánchez 65, author's italics)
Guango Orta's discourse re-creates the author/narrator as a mythical figure, who just as Daniel Santos is surrounded by chisme, rumors and seemingly shocking disclosures about his character, artistic ability and sexual preference. Through this mythification of the narrator, he becomes among the multiplicity and heterogeneity of voices in the text the only one who receives the stature to measure up to and enter into a dialogue with the excessive and hyperbolic persona of Daniel Santos.
The narrator's relationship to his subject is elusive and complex. While he travels across an entire continent and goes through great lengths to approximate his subject he apparently has no interest in knowing Daniel Santos personally or directly, as a surprised interlocutor wonders "¿[c]ómo es posible que tú…no quieras conocerlo ni de lejos?" (Sánchez 46). The narrator at once claims to want to give himself up, entregarse, completely to his subject and to deconstruct, desarmar, the myth of Daniel Santos. Their ambivalent relationship is mediated through the voices of the many interlocutors; inevitably the scene of the bolero emerges, where the text functions as the voice of the performer. Ortega also makes this connection between the scene of the bolero and the text itself, he notes that "[l]a novela reemplaza…al bolero, el narrador al cantante" (37). In the novel the narrator becomes the yo del cantante, who addresses himself to the desired other, the "tú apelado," Daniel Santos (Ortega 47). This creates inevitably a diadic and dialogic relation between the narrator and his elusive subject, which is not devoid of certain amorous implications that the bolero always connotes. The latent homoreroticism, the relation between the tú and yo structures the narrative and persists vis-à-vis the excessive heterosexuality that is Daniel Santos' signature style and plays a central role in the novel.
The excess of Daniel Santos is fundamentally related to the particular notion of masculinity that the novel puts forward. As explained earlier, the novel seems to give an ambivalent portrayal of the exalted machismo of Daniel Santos that puzzles both Julio Ortega and Aurea María Sotomayor in their discussion of the novel. Ortega finds this representation 'paradoxical,' while Sotomayor is much more critical of the homage to the problematic (anti-)heroe, Daniel Santos (Ortega 36-37; Sotomayor 317-8). Sotomayor wonders whether Santos's accomplishments summarized as "boleros, borracheras, barraganas," represent "una subversión válida," and she proceeds to ask "¿Qué significa traducir la conducta rufianesca de este hombre como norma de gesto trascedente y de naturaleza transgresora y rebelde?" (Sotomayor 317). Sotomayor concludes that Daniel Santos, "es, sobre todo, … el relato de una ontología caribeña calcada sobre el estereotipo norteamericano de lo exótico" (318). Is Santos's machismo really no more than an exotic stereotype from the Western imagination? This perspective disregards that Santos's machismo and version of masculinity emerges in the novel out of a specific location and socio-economic experience. Daniel Santos is of "procedencia barriobajera," where "la pobreza y la miseria amadrina la procacidad del cuerpo, los tempranos desórdenes" (Sánchez 84). The poverty, misery and restrictions of the poor barrio,s are according to the narrator, what leads the "varón completo de quince, dieciséis, diecisiete años" to a visceral machismo as a form of "consuelo" (Sánchez 85). Part of this form of "vivir en varón," is "atreverse a todo, mostrarse invicto, obscenizarse," in order to be different and fiercely independent (Sánchez 86). Yet, the expression "vivir en varón," (it carries the performative connotation of playing in a certain key, e.g. tocar en b-moll) already indicates it as a mode of being, a method of survival, a learned behavior and not an essential and innate characteristic.
This performative aspect of machismo as something that is produced and rehearsed is revealed in the assertion that "ser varón obliga parecerlo primero" (Sánchez 129). 'Parecer varón' consists of carefully rehearsed gestures ("Parecer varón es encuevarse los puños en los sobacos para aupar los bíceps"), ways of dressing ("Si una rampante vellosidad ocupa el pecho la camisa se desabotona hasta el ombligo") and a way of speaking ("Parecer varón es relatar las incidencias del pon que se le ofreció a una mami") (Sánchez 129). This rehearsed masculinity also includes the exclusion of femininine coded behavior: "hacer caso omiso de la pericia dulce, las técnicas d penetración, los primores lingüisticos del ars amandi y restringir el discurso del placer al tamaño del güevo, sensu strictu" (Sánchez 130, author's italics). Yet, unlike this reified form of machismo, Daniel Santos succeeds so phenomenally in his seductions precisely because he is not this form of "hombre bruto" (Sánchez 11). Instead, he is "un munificiente con las caricias….un especialista en zalamería húmedas," with which he saved "[m]ujeres emaciadas por abusos de hombre bruto" (Sánchez 27,11). Santos's sentimentality, melodramatic abilities and physical sensibility are what make him "braguetero supremo" (Sánchez 27). In a sense, it is these 'feminine' aspects of Santos persona that assure his success as a seducer and Don Juan, and ultimately make him "[un] hombre entre hombres" (Sánchez 12). It is by exceeding what is considered the realness and the naturalness of masculinity that Santos creates successfully his seductive persona. Judith Halberstam, in her chapter entitled "Drag Kings: Masculinity and Performance," explains how masculinity is generally seen as nonperformative, and "'just is,' whereas femininity is always suspected of artificiality (234). Santos, with his "pinta de maldito seductor, el envoltorio de bohemio amanecido, el repertorio cancioneril que pronostica que sí habrá más penas y olvidos," is an "outrageous performance of masculinity," excessive, and so over the top that the theatricality that is inherent in all gender identity is revealed (Sánchez 86, my emphasis; Halberstam 237). Only if masculinity becomes denaturalized and loses its apparent authenticity can the structures that support it become exposed and available for critique (Halberstam 239). In gender identities' "very character as performative resides the possibility of contesting its reified status" (Butler, "Performative Acts" 271). Though the novel does not consistently critique the machismo that sustains Daniel Santos's performance, the novel nonetheless reveals the performativity of his masculinity and de-essentializes "the most precious and deepest stronghold of Puerto Rican national identity: 'machismo'" (Lugo-Ortiz, Entiendes 17).
Agnes Lugo-Ortiz has pointed out that since the sixties and seventies "a multifaceted discourse on homosexuality was starting to imprint," and a concern for the representation of different sexual identities and practices emerged in Puerto Rican literature (118). Many texts showed "a preoccupation with fixing the visibility (the clear-cut otherness) of the 'maricón,' of determining his identity as unequivocally identifiable and prescribable" (Lugo-Ortiz118). Sánchez's novel succeeds precisely in avoiding a reified and fixed perception of desire and identity. A complicated nexus of desire emerges and vanishes during the brief interval of a bolero sung by Daniel Santos. This coincides with Quiroga's observation about the bolero, which for him "are all about erasure… they erase what is and create what could be" (152). The bolero allows desire and identification to travel across and beyond national borders; its mobility and ephemerality avoid precisely the "fracaso" and "desgracia" that for Sánchez signifies the "carbonziarse en la sordidez de un machismo" (132). The representation of machismo in Daniel Santos is so ambivalent and 'paradoxical,' because it moves between being a highly compulsive and reified form of behavior and being a much more de-essentializing theatrical production: machismo as an effective pose. While a performative production of machismo is not necessarily any less problematic than its essentialized version, it nonetheless opens up for questioning some of the problematic premises that sustain this position, among which is an often vicious misogyny.
Significantly, these two versions of masculinity are linked to differing conceptions of the national and national belonging that appear in the novel. On one hand the text reveals, what Aparicio calls a 'centripetal' movement, which the bolero creates as a pan-Caribbean structure of feeling and desire, a shared sentimentality, and on the other hand there is a 'centrifugal' gesture towards the national as essential 'Ursprung,' a kernel, that the narrator is attached to. This ambivalence towards the national has already been noted from Sánchez's first novel, by Agnes Lugo-Ortiz who finds that while Macho Camacho, undertakes a dismantling of the patriarchal national discourse, yet "this dismantling certainly does not mean a departure from an obsessive entanglement with issues about the specificity of Puerto Rican national culture or from a relentless desire to think the national community" (119).
This ambivalence towards the national becomes especially evident in the final and third part of the novel, entitled "Cinco boleros aún por melodiarse." In this final part, the author proposes "materiales narrativos que podrían 'bolerarse,'" brief stories or episodes in which daily life reveals its melodramatic dimension, making it ideal material for a proper bolero (Ortega 37). The final scene, because of its placement and its radical difference from previous scenes, appears as the novel's culmination and resolution. The scene takes place in Puerto Rico, more specifically in the rainforest. The narrator describes how he frequently searches out a certain place in the forest as a retreat during his worst days (Sánchez 201). One day, a group of exuberant, ebullient youth skipping school romp around in the rainforest intrude into the narrator's refuge. The narrator describes them enthusiastically as "[e]mbajadores plenipotenciarios de la loca frescura, embajadores que proclaman sus libertades …. Siguen pitando, asirenan los pitos, se jamaquean, rompen ramas, apedrean los mangos, se agreden con guayabas y mangos" (Sánchez 204). As this group of adolescents moves away from the narrator's hideout, he notes that a couple has stayed behind, "[un] animal macho espléndido, criado para amar [y]…..Animal hembra espléndida, criada para amar" who he then, with both fascination and unease, watches copulate (Sánchez 207-8). This frugality and exalted sexuality appear to make the confines of society briefly recede and give way to an edenic and unrestrained delirium. The narrator still hidden from view, apparently ecstatic and with a certain degree of nostalgia exclaims, "no ceso de celebrar el pájaro de la juventud" (Sánchez 211).
In several ways, this scene motions towards a coming home and essence; after the narrator has transversed many Latin American cities tracing the path of Daniel Santos, he is in this last scene in Puerto Rico, his and Daniel Santos's 'país natal.' Moreover, he is in the rainforest, the most primordial and pre-historic of places. Also, this sense of the return to pre-civilization and a pure essence is reinforced by how the narrator addresses the youth -jocosely, without doubt, but significantly nonetheless- as "Pieles Rojas," who escaped the "clases puñeteras [de]…los Cara Pálida" (Sánchez 204). This half-serious, half-joking evocation of the indigenous who have long ceased to exist on the island of Puerto Rico, furthers this motion towards an idyllic, indigenous past. This return to the 'heart' of the author's island, to the topos of the millenary rainforest and the native population is less a turning back then a vision for the future and health of the national community, represented in this youthful utopia that the narrator glimpses at from his hideaway. A vision of Puerto Rico emerges in which all ills of civilization, underdevelopment and an unequal modernity are temporarily eased by what the author calls a 'genital anarchy.' An animalistic instinct and vitality of the animal macho and animal hembra assert itself despite bitter reality of "[l]a América amarga, la América descalza, la América en español" (Sánchez 134). This scene emerges as a moment of resistance, a showing off of vitality, health and potency incorporated in the adolescent bodies that persists and asserts itself against all odds.
The exuberant group of adolescents appears to be the response to Pedreira's call in Insularismo for Puerto Rico, which he sees as a 'sick child' to become strong and healthy and overcoming its 'growing pains.' Their vitality, health and sexual prowess appear as an indicator of national health, and is met with admiration by the narrator who watches and sees "[como] bailan los pieles rojas la utopía que los recorre de pies a cabeza" (Sánchez 211). Yet, vis-à-vis these adolescents bursting with health, the role of the narrator is severely constrained and limited. He himself remains removed from the scene in more than one sense. Not only is he physically immobilized to not give away his presence, but also his age and critical consciousness separate him inevitably from this bacchanalian scene.
The narrator does reveal a certain pride and admiration for the youth that could be interpreted as paternal, yet his position is very different from the paternalistic position that Pedreira takes. He is aware that the utopian scene can only persist as long as his own presence does not interfere and remains unnoticed. While this scene is to some degree a response to Pedreira's call for a healthy and strong nation, it is also a highly exclusionary moment. Since, even as the narrator finds himself at the center and 'heart' of his "patria," his participation and involvement is limited to that of a passive onlooker who is conscious of his being out of place and even superfluous.
The narrator seems to have encountered and touched upon a certain primordial essence or kernel of his island, which at the same time represents a revitalized national community. However, this community remains inaccessible and just out of reach for the narrator himself. Vis-à-vis this misencounter between the narrator and his national vision, another earlier scene in which a certain imagined community is created takes on a distinct significance. The episode takes place in Cali, where the narrator sits in a restaurant where the voice of Daniel Santos begins to sing suddenly. As the voice of the bolero singer sounds, an immediate identification between the waiter Plinio, who chose the music and the narrator takes place,
Plinio dice - ¡Daniel! como quien dice-¡Viva!…Escueto, desapellidado, seña de complicidad entre parroquiano y camarero, lo llamamos Daniel sin santos ni tutelas. (Sánchez 181)
A sentimental and imagined community is created in the ephemeral moment of a bolero sung by Daniel Santos. This union resounds with homoerotic insinuations. Plinio slowly pronounces Daniel's name syllable by syllable and this utterance becomes "[una] penetración ricamente despaciosa" (Sánchez 181). Then Plinio reaches for the hand of the narrator and makes the more than suggestive remark, "[c]ompañero de afinidades, compañero" (Sánchez 181). The narrator in turn describes how, "[c]on los ojos cerrados, con la sonrisa que no despega los labios me voy yendo a la deriva por los tremedales del sentimiento. Con la dicha fustándome le sonrío al pasionario sin ley que convoca Daniel" (Sánchez 181). A triptych structure of desire emerges, where Daniel Santos gives the two men access to each other. This scene is in stark contrast with the heterosexual coupling of the final scene, where the narrator notes that he is superfluous and considers "evaporarse para que el amor carnal que … se cumpla sin terceros que en el amor nada hacen" (Sánchez 207). Here on the other hand the third element, Daniel Santos's voice is essential for the encounter between the two men. A matrix of desires is created between them that is not exclusionary as the final rainforest scene but instead inclusive and available to others as well. Moreover, a communion takes place that is independent of such factors as class, race, or sexual preference.
The bolero as Quiroga ascertains takes place in "another space beyond the national" (162). In Sánchez's novel "the bolero …seduce[s] readers … into a transnational (and even a meta-Caribbean) space" (151). This transnational, pan-Caribbean reach of the bolero is closely related to the desires that it voices and gives rise to, desires that are out of bounds, ambiguous and uncontainable within national borders. For example, Daniel Santos's "pasionario sin ley," is said to have led to his "expulsión de un país que se sintió injuriado por su paso calamitoso" (Sánchez 9). Daniel Santos scandalous sexual success, which includes the seduction of "la tartarnieta predilecta," of an Ex-president, led to accusations that he was "[un] burlador de la honra nacional" (Sánchez 11). This confirms Sylvia Molloy's and Robert McKee Irwin's thesis in Hispanisms and Homosexualities, that the relations "between nationalities and sexualities are uneasy at best" (xii). Unregulated sexual access and excess, as embodied by Daniel Santos's performative masculinity is met with national closure and expulsion. Yet, through the bolero, unregulated desires also create their own communities of belonging (however brief and ephemeral) and re-draw a sentimental cartography in which national borders recede.


Works Cited

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