Achebe, Chinua (Vol. 127)
Chinua Achebe 1930–
(Full name Albert Chinualumogu Achebe) Nigerian novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, editor, and author of children's literature.
The following entry presents an overview of Achebe's career through 1997. See also Chinua Achebe Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 5, 7, 11, 26.
Widely known as "the father of the African novel in English," Achebe is one of the most significant writers to emerge from contemporary Africa with a literary vision that has profoundly influenced the form and content of modern African literature. In his novels, he has chronicled the colonization of Nigeria by Great Britain and the political turmoil following its independence. Achebe's novels represent some of the first works written in English that articulate an intimate and authentic account of African culture and mores—especially his first novel, Things Fall Apart (1958), which critics have proclaimed a classic of modern African fiction. A major theme of Achebe's writings is the social and psychological impact of European imperialism on indigenous African societies, particularly with respect to a distinctly African consciousness in the twentieth century. Critics have praised Achebe's novels for their insightful renditions of African history as well as balanced examinations of contemporary African politics and society. Scholars also have praised Achebe's innovative fusion of Igbo folklore, proverbs, and idiomatic expressions with Western political ideologies and Christian doctrines.
Born in Ogidi, Nigeria, Achebe attended Church Mission Society School, where his Igbo (or Ibo) parents were catechists. He continued his education at Government College in Umuahia, which is considered one of the best secondary schools in West Africa. In 1948 he enrolled in the first class at the newly established University College in Ibadan, run by the University of London. As an English literature student, Achebe often contributed stories, essays, and sketches to the University Herald. These works eventually were collected in Girls at War (1972). Within a year after his graduation in 1953, Achebe began a twelve-year career as a producer for the Nigerian Broadcasting Company (NBC) in Lagos, Nigeria's capital. During these years, Achebe also began researching and writing his most famous novel, Things Fall Apart, which was published two years prior to Nigerian autonomy in 1960. He followed his literary debut with three other novels—No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), and A Man of the People (1966). By 1966, however, Nigeria's political climate worsened, deteriorating into a thirty-month civil war. Achebe quit his position at NBC and moved to the eastern region of Nigeria, which briefly seceded to become the independent state of Biafra. While there, Achebe devoted all his time to Biafran affairs and writing poetry, short stories, and essays. His most notable work during this time was his book of poetry, Beware, Soul Brother (1971). After the war ended in 1970, Achebe accepted a series of visiting professorships in the United States, where he founded and edited the respected African literary journal Okike and published Morning Yet on Creation Day (1975), a collection of literary and political essays written between 1962 and 1973. In 1976 Achebe returned to Nigeria where began teaching at the University of Nigeria in Nsukka. By the early 1980s, he was actively involved in Nigerian politics, serving first as the deputy national president of the People's Redemption Party and later as president of the town union in his hometown. At the same time, he also issued a polemical commentary on Nigerian leadership, The Trouble with Nigeria (1983). In 1987 Achebe published Anthills of the Savannah—his first novel after a twenty-one-year sabbatical from writing long fiction and the work that won Achebe a nomination for the prestigious Booker Prize. In 1990 Achebe nearly died from injuries sustained in an auto accident on a Nigerian highway under suspicious circumstances. Achebe spent six months recuperating in England following the accident, and moved to the United States where he continues to write and teach.
A realistic and anthropologically informative portrait of traditional Igbo society distinguishes Things Fall Apart, which is named after a title from a line in Irish poet W. B. Yeats's poem "The Second Coming." Set in the village of Umuofia during the initial stages of colonization in the late 1880s, the narrative traces the conflict between Igbo and Western customs through the characterization of Okonkwo, a proud village leader whose refusal to adapt to the encroaching European influences leads him to murder and suicide. No Longer at Ease follows Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of the protagonist of Achebe's first novel, throughout his failure to successfully combine his traditional Igbo upbringing with his British education and affluent lifestyle in Lagos during the late 1950s. Describing Igbo village life during the 1920s, Arrow of God centers on Ezeulu, a spiritual leader, whose son Oduche attends a missionary school to learn about Western society and technology. When Oduche comes home, he nearly kills a sacred python, which precipitates a chain of events culminating in Ezeulu's loss of his position as high priest and his detention by British authorities. Highlighting the widespread graft and abuse of power by Nigerian leaders following its independence from Great Britain, A Man of the P̀eople focuses on the tribulations of a Nigerian teacher who joins a political group working to remove a corrupt bureaucrat from office. The poems of Beware, Soul Brother—which later was republished as Christmas in Biafra (1973)—reflect on the human tragedy of the Nigerian civil war, using plain language and stark imagery. Similarly, some of the stories in Girls at War are about aspects of imminent war. Most of the stories deal with the conflict between traditional religious values and modern, secular mores, displaying the full range of Achebe's talents for humor, irony, and political satire. Divided into two parts, Morning Yet on Creation Day addresses a number of literary and political themes, with special emphasis on traditional and contemporary roles of art and the writer in African society. Set in the fictional West African country of Kangan, Anthills of the Savannah is about three childhood friends who hold influential governmental posts. When one of them fails in his bid for election as president for life, he works to suppress his opposition. After successfully conspiring to murder one friend, he meets a violent death during a military coup, while the third friend dies in a street riot. Generally considered Achebe's most accomplished work, Anthills of the Savannah illustrates the often dire consequences for society when individual responsibility and power are recklessly exploited. While retaining the use of Igbo proverbs and legends to enhance his themes, Achebe also pays more attention to the development and role of the women characters in this novel. In the book, Achebe gives women strength and composure as the agents of traditional morals and precepts. Finally, Hopes and Impediments (1988) gathers new and previously published essays and speeches, including a controversial essay attacking British novelist Joseph Conrad as racist. The book also includes a tribute to American novelist James Baldwin, along with several commentaries on post-colonial African society that high-light cultural forces influencing its modern-day character.
Many critics regard Achebe as the finest Nigerian novelist of the twentieth century with his works often serving as the standard for judging other African literary works. Achebe's literary criticism and sociological essays also have won praise. As one of the most discussed African writers of his generation, Achebe has inspired a substantial body of criticism and scholarship about his writing and political stances. Achebe's inventive usage of Igbo proverbs and folklore in his novels is the most studied feature of his art. Scholars have mostly concentrated on the significance of proverbs in Achebe's construction of vernacular speech patterns and social conventions, as well as a way to distinguish identities of his fictional characters. Scholars also have focused on how the proverbs provide thematic control to Achebe's narrative structures. Critics note, however, that Achebe's writings have relevance beyond the borders of Nigeria and beyond the anthropological, sociological, and political concerns of post-colonial Africa. Achebe's literature also deals with the universal qualities of human nature. As Achebe has said, "My politics is concerned with universal communication across racial and cultural boundaries as a means of fostering respect for all people…. As long as one people sit on another and are deaf to their cry, so long will understanding and peace elude all of us."
Things Fall Apart (novel) 1958
No Longer at Ease (novel) 1960
The Sacrificial Egg and Other Stories (short stories) 1962
Arrow of God (novel) 1964
Chike and the River (juvenilia) 1966
A Man of the People (novel) 1966
Beware, Soul Brother, and Other Poems (poetry) 1971; republished as Christmas in Biafra and Other Poems, 1973
Girls at War and Other Stories (short stories) 1972
How the Leopard Got His Claws [with John Iroaganachi] (juvenilia) 1972
Morning Yet on Creation Day (essays) 1975
The Drum: A Children's Story (juvenilia) 1977
Don't Let Him Die: An Anthology of Memorial Poems for Christopher Okigbo (1932–1967) [co-editor with Dubem Okafor] (poetry) 1978
The Flute: A Children's Story (juvenilia) 1979
The Trouble with Nigeria (essays) 1983
African Short Stories [co-editor with C. L. Innes] (short stories) 1985
Anthills of the Savannah (novel) 1987
Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays (essays) 1988
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SOURCE: "An Interview with Chinua Achebe," in Conversations with Chinua Achebe, edited by Bernth Lindfors, University Press of Mississippi, 1997, pp. 165-84.
[In the following interview, originally conducted on May 28, 1989, and first published in Callaloo in 1991, Achebe discusses the role of the writer and literature in an African context, paying particular attention to indigenous narrative traditions, the influence of the English language on the continent, and the genesis of his own identity as a writer.]
[Rowell:] Mr. Achebe, here in the United States, those of us who read twentieth-century world literature think of you as one of the most important writers in this era. We view you as an artist—and for us the word artist has a certain kind of meaning. In the African world, does artist have the same meaning as that conceptualized in the Western world? Or, more specifically, what do Nigerians conceive the writer to be?
Is he or she thought of as an artist, a creator of the kind that we think of here in the United States when we speak about writers?
[Achebe:] Well, I think that there are obviously certain common factors when anybody talks about an artist, whether in America or in Africa. I think there are certain factors which would apply to either place—and so we can leave those aside, if you like. But there are differences definitely,...
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SOURCE: "Okonkwo's Participation in the Killing of His 'Son' in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart: A Study of Ignoble Decisiveness," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, March, 1992, pp. 303-15.
[In the following essay, Iyasere explains the thematic and structural significance of the murder of Ikemefuna in Things Fall Apart, focusing on the character development of Okonkwo.]
No episode in Achebe's memorable novel, Things Fall Apart,1 is more shocking and heartrending as the execution of Ikemefuna, an event too dreadful to endure. Circumstances surrounding the event make it even more hideous—if that is possible—and invite our moral revulsion more intensely than the killing of the messenger. Commenting on the significance of the murder of Ikemefuna, David Caroll writes:
The death of Ikemefuna is a turning point in the novel. The guardianship of the boy was a mark of Okonkwo's hard-won status and the highest point of his rise to power. The execution of Ikemefuna is the beginning of Okonkwo's decline, for it initiates the series of catastrophes which ended in his death. But this event is not only a milestone in the career of the hero. The sympathetic rendering of Ikemefuna's emotions as he is being marched through the forest to his death has wider implications.2
As crucial as this episode is to the...
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SOURCE: "Contests of Text and Context in Chinua Achebe's 'Arrow of God,'" in Ariel, Vol. 23, No. 2, April, 1992, pp. 7-22.
[In the following essay, Adeeko examines various manipulations of a thematic Nigerian proverb in Arrow of God, arguing that its intentional misuse contributes to the novel's tragedy.]
Proverbs are so conspicuous in Chinua Achebe's novels that they constitute the most studied singular feature of his art. As it were, Achebe's use of proverbs is in itself proverbial. One can speak of two tendencies in this well-traversed area. Bold critics often tend to generate ethnic theories of cognition from the structure and nature of the proverbs, and much of the highly perceptive ones concentrate on the significance of the sayings in Achebe's creative construction of "vernacular" conversation. For the reason that proverbs usually employ concrete images, Cairns suggests, for instance, that the sayings reflect the African predilection for non-abstract thought (16). However, more perceptive Achebe scholars have revealed that he uses proverbs to add distinctively local shade to his settings, depict the speech patterns and conventions of Igbo characters who would not ordinarily speak English, define these characters by particular types of proverbs, and also exercise narrative control by changing "thematic" statements as his plots develop. In addition, such studies reveal that women and children...
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SOURCE: "Chinua Achebe's Arrow of God: Ezeulu's Response to Change," in College Literature, Vol. 19, No. 3, October, 1992, pp. 214-19.
[In the following essay, Awuyah analyzes Ezeulu's attitudes toward colonial authorities in Arrow of God, focusing on the significance of his decision to send Oduche to a Christian missionary school.]
Achebe's Arrow of God is a multifarious work with several uncharted territories that can be explored with much reward. However, one must exercise caution in teaching this text to neophytes, lest they become befuddled within its several contours. It is with this notion in mind that I introduce Arrow of God to my beginning class in world literature (at West Chester University, Pennsylvania), most of whom are taking literature at the university level for the first time as a General Education requirement. Instead of engaging my students in multiple interpretations, as Arrow of God really demands, I find it expedient to map out and concentrate on a few significant segments that invariably lead to the core of Achebe's art.
A principal issue which unfailingly elicits enthusiastic comments from students is Ezeulu's response to changes in his social environment as a result of the presence of the white man. By focusing on this topic students gain insight into Ezeulu's character and become acquainted with the background of British...
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SOURCE: "Art and Orthodoxy in Chinua Achebe's 'Anthills of the Savannah,'" in Ariel, Vol. 24, No. 4, October, 1993, pp. 35-51.
[In the following essay, Kanaganayakam compares and contrasts Achebe's narrative technique in Anthills of the Savannah to that of his earlier works.]
Twenty-one years after the publication of A Man of the People (1966), Chinua Achebe published Anthills of the Savannah, perhaps his most enigmatic and complex work to date. The years separating these two works have been significant ones in the life of the author, for they entailed a deep concern with political turmoil, disillusionment with economic and cultural life, loss of friends and property, and an undying faith in the ultimate destiny of his country. All these sentiments find expression in the short stories, poems, and essays published in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly in his work of non-fiction, The Trouble with Nigeria (1984). It is thus not surprising that the novel that followed this period of upheaval (and the author's concomitant silence as a novelist) should be different in many ways, although the thematic preoccupations of the previous novels still persist. What has changed is the attitude to a historical process, and that in turn has necessitated a more experimental form, one that transcends the referentiality of his earlier works and lends itself to greater complexity and syncreticity...
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SOURCE: "Chinua Achebe and the Poetics of Location: The Uses of Space in Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease," in Essays on African Writing, A Re-evaluation, edited by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Heinemann, 1993, pp. 1-12.
[In the following essay, Gikandi analyzes the development of meaning in Things Fall Apart and No Longer at Ease in terms of narrative representations of space and location.]
It is not an exaggeration to say that the works of Chinua Achebe have up to now been read almost exclusively in terms of time and historicity. But this privileging of temporal terms has not arisen because of critical oversight or theoretical blindness: Achebe seems to have written his works so close to the axis of temporality that his whole oeuvre has an uncanny way of forcing us to read it not so much in the sequence in which his novels were written, but in the progressive historical relation these texts have established vis á vis the African experience. In the circumstances, even when our critical paradigms are generated by the desire to trace the formal and ideological relations between Achebe's texts—as I have tried to do in Reading Chinua Achebe1—we are more likely to follow a trajectory from Things Fall Apart, through Arrow of God, to No Longer at Ease, than one which reads these novels in the order in which they appeared. It is indeed...
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SOURCE: "Eleanor Wachtel with Chinua Achebe," in The Malahat Review, No. 113, December, 1995, pp. 53-66.
[Wachtel is a writer and radio personality who hosts CBC Radio's Sunday literary program "Writers & Company." In the following interview, originally broadcast in January, 1994, Achebe discusses his personal and literary background, the evolution of his literary career, and his role in and hopes for the Nigerian political economy.]
The first book I ever read by a black African was Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I read it some twenty-five years ago, just as the Nigerian civil war was winding down. It was often referred to as the Biafran war, because Biafra was the name of the breakaway Ibo nation. And it was the first time in my memory that Africa became associated with that horrific image of starving children with distended bellies. Casualties were very high—most of them Ibo civilians who starved to death after federal forces blockaded the rebel-controlled area.
Things Fall Apart provided a rare and original picture of Ibo society in the late nineteenth century. By focusing on a single village and its leader, the novel illustrated Nigeria's early experience of colonialism and British rule. The book sold millions of copies worldwide, was translated into thirty languages, and adapted for stage, radio, and television. It was the first novel by an African to be...
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SOURCE: "The Use of English in Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, June, 1994, pp. 365-76.
[In the following essay, Robson examines various types of English that appear in Anthills of the Savannah, demonstrating how each reflects differences in education, social status, and cultural context.]
The language question, that is to say the question of whether Third World writers should write in indigenous languages or the international language of the former colonizer, is most commonly political in nature. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, the Kenyan writer, illustrates this point very clearly when he describes his decision to change from English to Gikuyu as his preferred literary language as "part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples."1 The language question may also be seen, however, as part of a debate in the fields of linguistics and culture, or the ethnography of communication. In this context, the question alludes not to political realities and/or fantasies, but to the nature of the relationship between language and culture. If language shapes our perception of the world, and if to be part of a language group is, in the linguist Whorf's phrase, to share a common "thought world." then to write a novel whose characters are Nigerian, for example, but whose thoughts and words are presented in English, might be said to be...
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SOURCE: "The Priest/Artist Tradition in Achebe's Arrow of God," in Africa Today, Vol. 41, No. 2, 1994, pp. 51-62.
[Kalu is an American educator whose research interests include multiculturalism, women in the African diaspora, African and African-American literary theory construction, and African development issues. In the following essay, Kalu demonstrates how Achebe's use of traditional Igbo religious, political, philosophical, and artistic motifs in Arrow of God combine to illumine the abstract notion of duality.]
In his efforts to validate the African literary artist's vision, Chinua Achebe has frequently spoken out against art for art's sake. He insists that
art is, and was always, in the service of man. Our ancestors created their myths and legends and told their stories for a human purpose (including no doubt, the excitation of wonder and pure delight); they made their sculptures in wood and terra cotta, stone and bronze to serve the needs of their times. Their artists lived and moved and had their beings in society and created their works for the good of that society.1
In this functional view of art, he appears to agree with Ernst Fischer2 that the arts express a higher purpose in man's existence. Achebe considers himself and other African artists teachers and recorders of African history and...
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SOURCE: "Beyond Authenticity and Creolization: Reading Achebe Writing Culture," in Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, Vol. 110, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 30-42.
[Ten Kortenaar has written other scholarly articles on Achebe. In the following essay, he compares similarities in the narrative strategies of the colonized and the colonizer to define their respective cultural identities in Arrow of God.]
The discussion of culture in postcolonial literary criticism revolves around the twin poles of authenticity and hybridization. One response to the experience of colonialism and the concomitant denigration of cultural identities has been to call for a return to precolonial authenticity. In current debates the standard of fidelity to origins is often Ng g wa Thiong'o's rejection of English in favor of G k y for the language of his novels. Such authenticity contrasts with the acceptance by other writers of some measure of interfertilization (or creolization or mongrelization or métissage). In the French Caribbean, for instance, the negritude of Aimé Césaire stands against the créolité celebrated by Patrick Chamoiseau. Advocates of creolization denounce colonialism but believe that it is irreversible. That position does not leave the former colonized without a culture: they have a hybrid or creole culture that has borrowed from the metropolitan culture and in the process...
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SOURCE: "Okonkwo As Yeatsian Hero: The Influence of W. B. Yeats on Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart," in The Literary Criterion, Vol. XXX, No. 4, pp. 1-14.
[In the following essay, Criswell traces thematic parallels between Things Fall Apart and Yeats's play On Baile's Strand, focusing on conceptual similarities that characterize the tragic hero in each work.]
The title of Chinua Achebe's first novel, Things Fall Apart, is taken from W. B. Yeats's poem, "The Second Coming." Many critics, such as Judith Gleason and A. G. Stock, have commented on the influence of Yeats's view of history and time (his notion of the cyclical nature of existence symbolized by his "gyres," or intertwining cones, illustrated in such poems as "The Double Vision of Michael Robartes," "The Phases of the Moon," and "The Second Coming") on Achebe's novel. However, Chinua Achebe may have found in the writings of W. B. Yeats more than merely a shared view of the rise and fall of civilizations (as A. G. Stock suggests); it is possible that Achebe was influenced by the way Yeats utilized Irish folklore to dramatize his interpretation of the historical process. Yeats found the legends of the Irish hero, Cuchulainn, to be an especially useful vehicle for his cosmological paradigm and his notion of the tragic hero's place within that cosmology. One such legend, "The Death of Aife's One Son," seems to have...
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SOURCE: "The Metamorphosis of Piety in Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart," in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 128-38.
[In the following essay, Mackenzie details the transformation of indigenous religious beliefs and practices in Things Fall Apart, comparing it to the relatively static portrayal of religion in Arrow of God.]
Matters of religion are thematically central to Things Fall Apart and Arrow of God. Both novels reflect revisions in the nature of traditional worship, and both attest to the demise of traditional mores in the face of an aggressive and alien proselytizing religion. The disparities between the two novels are equally significant. Possibly for reasons of historical setting, Things Fall Apart differs from Arrow of God in its presentation of the status of indigenous beliefs and in its precise delineation of the evolutionary process of those beliefs—a process not articulated in any detail in the later novel. The shifts of belief in Things Fall Apart are marked by the pragmatic transference of old pieties for new, a metamorphosis demanded by the realities of a revised socio-economic hierarchy.
The first mention of the religious beliefs of Umuofia in Things Fall Apart is a reference to the Oracle of the Hills and the Caves. It is a decisive allusion, correlating the will of the...
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SOURCE: "Achebe's Sense of an Ending: History and Tragedy in Things Fall Apart," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 396-411.
[In the following essay, Begam describe's three distinct conclusions to Things Fall Apart in relation to three different conceptions of history produced by reading the narrative in a post-colonial context, arguing that the novel offers various responses to tragedy as an art form as well.]
One of the more notable consequences of cultural globalization has been the exchange that has occurred over the last decade or so between what we have come to call postmodernism and postcolonialism.1 This meeting of First World and Third World has inspired more controversy than consensus, but on one point there seems to have been wide agreement: if we want to understand colonialism, then we must understand how it is represented. As Hayden White has argued, speaking of historiography in general, the "form" is the "content," and this means that the language, vocabulary, and conceptual framework in which the experience of colonialism is produced inevitably determine what can and cannot be said about it.2 To borrow Homi K. Bhabha's formulation, "nation" and "narration" are not easily separated—the one implies the other.3
The present paper explores the intersection between narrative construction and colonial...
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Aji, Aron and Kirstin Lynne Ellsworth. "Ezinma: The Ogbanje Child in Achebe's Things Fall Apart." College Literature 19, No. 3 (October 1992): 170-5.
Details the narrative significance of Ezinma in Things Fall Apart, emphasizing the feminine principles and cultural resilience that informs the character's purpose in the novel.
Brooks, Jerome. "The Art of Fiction CXXXIX: Chinua Achebe." Paris Review 36 (Winter 1994): 142-66.
An interview with Achebe in which he discusses his education, his work as a broadcaster in Nigeria, his views on other writers, his audience, and the political situation in Nigeria.
Carey-Webb, Allen. "Heart of Darkness, Tarzan, and the 'Third World': Canons and Encounters in World Literature, English 109." College Literature 19, No. 3 (October 1992): 121-41.
Addresses the reception and contextualization of "Third World" or "post-colonial" literature by comparing the contemporary canonical significance of Heart of Darkness, Tarzan, and Things Fall Apart.
DePriest, Tomika. "Women's Social Roles in the Novels of Chinua Achebe." Mount Olive Review 8 (Winter-Spring 1995–1996): 138-43.
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