Mateo Alemán 1547-1615?
Spanish Golden Age novelist.
The fame of the Spanish Golden Age writer Mateo Alemán lies almost entirely with his Guzmán de Alfarache, typically regarded as the greatest and most influential picaresque novel. Published in two parts between 1599 and 1604, Alemán's fictional autobiography of an unscrupulous “pícaro,” or rogue—who cheats and deceives his way through life until his final religious conversion—was the most commercially successful piece of Spanish literature of its day, achieving greater critical acclaim and popular sales than even Cervantes' Don Quixote. Although Alemán's masterpiece is seldom read today, scholars continue to debate the authenticity of protagonist's conversion. Critics agree, however, that the psychological complexity, engaging plot, and literary realism of Guzmán de Alfarache rank it with Don Quixote as one of the two greatest novels of the Spanish Golden Age.
The exact date of Alemán's birth in Seville is unknown, although it was presumably within weeks of his baptism on September 28, 1547. His father was a medical doctor who, like his son, often struggled with financial difficulties. Despite being professing Christians, the Alemán family was suspected of being of Jewish origin, making its members ineligible for Spanish nobility or immigration to the New World. In 1564 Alemán received a Bachelor's degree in Arts and Philosophy from the University of Maese Rodrigo. For the following three years he studied medicine at the universities of Maese Rodrigo, Salamanca, and Alcalá, leaving school temporarily after his father's death in 1567. In 1568 Alemán ended his medical studies permanently and took several large loans in order to become a businessman. His businesses failed, and unable to repay his debts, Alemán agreed to marry the daughter of one his creditors rather than be thrown into debtor's prison. For the following decade Alemán failed at a series of business ventures before returning to the University of Maese Rodrigo in 1580 to study law. Later that same year Alemán was arrested for unpaid debts and sent to prison, where he spent several months before being bailed out by his wife and a prosperous uncle. Seeking a new life, Alemán applied to immigrate to the New World; however, his application was denied because of his Jewish ancestry. In 1583 Alemán was made a judge, but even this position ended in failure when King Philip II ordered Alemán jailed for overstepping his authority. Circumstances began to improve when Alemán got a government job as an accountant soon after being released from his second jail term; he moved to Madrid, augmenting his small salary by renting houses and making loans. In 1591, while in Cartagena on business, Alemán was nearly killed after being accidentally hit in the head by a cannon shot. Crediting his survival to his prayers to Saint Anthony of Padua, Alemán vowed to write a biography of the saint, a promise he kept over a decade later with the publication of San Antonio de Padua (1604; Saint Anthony of Padua). In 1593 Alemán again served as a judge, this time without complaint, gaining still more experiences which would soon find echo in his fictional autobiography of the rogue Guzmán.
Alemán was fifty before he began his literary career, publishing first translations of two odes by Horace and writing a prologue for a book by a friend, Alonso de Barros, in 1598. In 1599 Alemán published Guzmán de Alfarache, a book so immediately popular that within five years it had been reprinted in over twenty-five editions, many of them pirated. Although the success of the novel made Alemán instantly famous, the pirated versions of his work meant that Alemán gained little financial reward. Three years later, in 1602, Alemán was again imprisoned for failure to pay his debts, although he was soon bailed out by a cousin. That same year an unauthorized Part II of Guzmán was published by an pseudonymous author, sparking Alemán to begin work on an authentic continuation of the adventures of the popular “picaro,” which was published in 1604. Despite the continued success of his work, Alemán remained in debt. In 1607 he applied again to immigrate to Mexico, bribing officials to gain permission. Arriving in Mexico in 1608 with his mistress and several of their illegitimate children, Alemán's financial situation immediately improved, probably in large part due to his friendship with Fray García Guerra, Archbishop and Viceroy of New Spain, whom Alemán had met during his voyage to the New World. In Mexico, Alemán continued to write, publishing the Ortografía castellana (Castilian Orthography) in 1609 and Sucesos de D. Frai García Gera (Happenings of Fray García Guerra) in 1613. Nothing more is known of Alemán after 1615, the year most biographers presume he died.
Alemán's literary success can be attributed to his lengthy novel, Guzmán de Alfarache, published in two parts in 1599 and 1604, respectively. Regarded as the second picaresque novel published in Spain (the first being the popular Lazarillo de Tormes, published in 1554 by an unknown author), Guzmán de Alfarache is a fictional autobiography of a “pícaro” or rogue who looks back on his life of deceit and sin after he has been sentenced to life in prison for his wicked deeds. The illegitimate son of a prostitute and an usurer, Guzmán's story begins with a description of his humble origins. After his father dies, Guzmán journeys out into the world and attempts to improve his lot in life. Finding little success in a series of jobs, Guzmán falls in with a group of rogues and beggars from whom he learns how to gain a comfortable living by thievery and fraud. Cheating at cards enables him to pose as a successful merchant, and he soon marries a woman who leaves him penniless before she dies. Next, the rogue decides to become a minister because he considers this occupation easy, but he soon abandons this plan and marries again, this time acting as a pimp and living on the earnings of his wife's prostitution. When this wife finally deserts him, Guzmán once again gains his living from gambling and thievery until he is finally apprehended and sentenced to a life in prison for his many crimes. In prison, the narrator repents of his crimes, promising to lead a virtuous life in the future. The open ending of the second part of the novel has led many critics to believe that Alemán intended to write a third section; however, this remains largely speculative since Alemán did not write further adventures of his most famous character before his death in 1615.
Not only did the publication of Guzmán de Alfarache gain Alemán instant popular success as an author, his novel was praised by critics of his day for both its highly entertaining plot and its moral teachings. Within fifteen years of the novel's first publication it was translated into French, Italian, and German, and Alemán's prose was widely considered superior to Cervantes' popular 1605 masterpiece, Don Quixote. Modern critics often regard Alemán's picaresque novel as a revolutionary step within the emerging literary genre, and contend that its unsentimental depiction of everyday life fostered the development of the modern realistic novel. Nearly all twentieth-century criticism of the novel focuses on the interpretation of Guzmán's religious conversion. Some critics conclude that the narrator's turn to religion is yet another example of a scoundrel who seizes the opportunity to turn to piety only in order to save his life, while others regard the conversion as authentic, teaching the lesson that all men are cursed with Original Sin but can be saved through repentance and divine grace. The psychological complexity of Guzmán's narration, mixing burlesque humor and satire with moral digressions chastising a degenerate society, has opened a wide spectrum of conjecture on the relationship between the character Guzmán and the author Alemán, a Christian of Jewish origins who may have wished to prove his devotion to Christian tenets. Whatever its interpretation, critics are unanimous in their praise of Guzmán de Alfarache as one of the seminal novels of the Spanish Golden Age.
Guzmán de Alfarache [Guzmán; or The Adventures of Gusman d'Alfarache (novel) 1599
San Antonio de Padua [Saint Anthony of Padua] (novel) 1604
*Atalaya de la vida humana [Watch-Tower of Man's Life; or Guzmán de Alfarache, Part 2] (novel) 1604
Ortografía castellana [Castilian Orthography] (novel) 1609
Sucesos de D. Frai García Gera [Happenings of Fray García Guerra] (novel) 1613
*Sometimes combined with the 1599 Guzmán de Alfarache and titled Guzmán de Alfarache.
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SOURCE: Eoff, Sherman. “The Picaresque Psychology of Guzmán de Alfarache.” Hispanic Review 21, no. 2 (April 1953): 107-19.
[In the following essay, Eoff examines the psychology of the protagonist of Guzmán de Alfarache, dividing the story into sections which portray the protagonist's increasing shamelessness, deceit, and buffoonery.]
What is the psychology of a pícaro? Can we profit by study the varieties of this literary type as we would individual human beings enmeshed in their environment? There is general agreement that the Spanish picaresque novel of the seventeenth century, more than a special kind of narrative form growing out of literary antecedents, is the expression of an attitude substantially determined by social, moral, and economic conditions of the age in which it flourished. What has been said on the subject, however, has to do largely with the mass psychology of la picardía as an indication of national consciousness, rather than with the psychology of individuals.1 Briefly, the picaresque attitude is visualized within two major perspectives, the one bearing on the heart-free enjoyment of an extrasocial life, and the other on somber disillusionment.
We are told, for example, that the pícaro, infected with the collective spirit of parasitism and holgazanería, derisively turns away from impotent moralism,2...
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SOURCE: Ricapito, J. V. “Love and Marriage in Guzmán de Alfarache: An Essay on Literary and Artistic Unity.” Kentucky Romance Quarterly 15, no. 2 (1968): 123-38.
[In the following essay, Ricapito examines themes of love and marriage in Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache, concentrating on the affair of Guzmán's mother as a pivotal episode in Guzmán's own unhappy love life.]
Critics, in evaluating the concept of love in the picaresque genre, have uniformly noted its absence or decreased importance as a literary theme. In one of the first modern critical commentaries on the picaresque, F. W. Chandler underscores the absence of sentiment in the picaresque novel and also notes that, in the case of Pícara Justina, “Love bears a direct proportion to wealth …” In the Spanish picaresque novel, women are usually depicted as inconstant, and love and marriage are generally submitted to the picaro's mercenary schemes. This particular presentation of love in picaresque literature, he further notes, is intimately linked with humor.1 For Romera-Navarro, the picaresque genre barely found room for a theme like love, unlike its literary predecessor, the books of chivalry. He notes that the pícaro “… burlador unas veces, es también a menudo burlado, casi siempre por mujeres.”2 S. Gilman emphasizes the absence of love in the pícaro's...
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SOURCE: Oakley, R. J. “The Problematic Unity of Guzmán de Alfarache.” In Hispanic Studies in Honour of Joseph Manson, edited by Dorothy M. Atkinson and Anthony H. Clarke, pp. 185-206. Oxford: The Dolphin Book Co. Ltd., 1972.
[In the following essay, Oakley examines themes of honor and necessity in Guzmán de Alfarache, concluding that Alemán's work centers on the moral weakness of humanity and its need for divine help in obtaining salvation.]
In his recent biography of Mateo Alemán, Donald McGrady provided a summary of recent trends in criticism of Guzmán de Alfarache, remarking that although, on the whole, the twentieth century critics have rehabilitated the moralistic digressions in it, they have erred to the other extreme, exaggerating the importance of these digressions ‘at the expense of the action, which is always the essence of fiction.’1
We venture to suggest that although in one sense he is right, in another he is wrong. He is correct in his observation to the extent that the pícaro's adventures and the digressions are designed to complement and reinforce one another, but in saying that action is the essence of fiction, he makes a dangerous assumption about the creative processes that produced Guzmán. He is analysing Alemán's masterpiece in the light of three centuries of literary history as regards the development of...
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SOURCE: Folkenflik, Vivian. “Vision and Truth: Baroque Art Metaphors in Guzmán de Alfarache.” Modern Language Notes 88, no. 2 (March 1973): 347-55.
[In the following essay, Folkenflik discusses Alemán's references to painting in Guzmán de Alfarache, many of which show the author's insistence that the visual world is an illusion.]
Towards the end of his description of his Italian travels, the narrator of Guzmán de Alfarache has occasion to lament that nowadays men judge only according to what they see:
Cuando fueres alquimia, eso que reluciere de ti, eso será venerado. Ya no se juzgan almas ni más de aquello que ven los ojos.
Anyone who has read this far in Mateo Alemán's massive picaresque novel will agree. Social reality is so completely founded on what can be seen that most of the inhabitants of Guzmán's world pay little attention to anything else. The inventive tricks by which the hero makes his way in the world all rest on his conception of it as a place in which parecer is what counts. His calculations often miscarry—as the proverb has it, “que aunque vistan a la mona de seda, mona se queda” (II, 115). Nevertheless, exposure is as often due to inadequate attention to disguise as to anything. We are left with the impression that if people cannot...
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SOURCE: Norval, M. N. “Original Sin and the ‘Conversion’ in the Guzmán de Alfarache.” Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 51, no. 4 (October 1974): 346-64.
[In the following essay, Norval argues against critics such as Alexander Parker and Moreno Báez who claim that Guzmán's final conversion is real, charging instead that Guzmán de Alfarache is a pessimistic story about man's inability to gain salvation without God's grace.]
The Guzmán de Alfarache is a pseudo-autobiography in which a pícaro tells the story of his evil life and his supposed conversion.1 More critics than not have dismissed the conversion as hypocritical, as Alexander Parker has pointed out,2 but the prevailing critical view at present accepts it as genuine.3 This view, expounded primarily by Moreno Báez and Alexander Parker, takes Guzmán's tale at face value, and sees the novel as a working-out of orthodox Catholic doctrines concerning man and his salvation. The novel is linked by Parker to such confessional literature as Augustine's Confessions and Malón de Chaide's La conversión de la Magdalena (32, 35).
There are, however, serious difficulties with this interpretation, one of which is the matter of tone. Not only is the Guzmán marked by a pervasive bitterness which is not the attitude one expects of a converted soul, but...
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SOURCE: Smith, Hilary S. D. “The Pícaro Turns Preacher: Guzmán's de Alfarache's Missed Vocation.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 14, no. 4 (October 1978): 387-97.
[In the following essay, Smith examines the sermons in Guzmán de Alfarache, concentrating on Guzmán's role as a preacher.]
It must become apparent to even the most casual reader of Mateo Alemán's picaresque novel Guzmán de Alfarache that the work is full of sermons; that not only the digressive discursos (a favourite term applied to contemporary printed sermons) but also complete chapters are cast in a homiletic mould.1 Whereas Unamuno expressed his dislike for this novel by calling it “una sarta de sermones enfadosos y pedestres de la más ramplona filosofía y de la exposición más difusa y adormiladora que cabe”,2 Herrero García was not being intentionally disparaging when he defined the picaresque novel in general as “un sermón con alteración de proporciones de los elementos que entran en su combinación”.3 Later critics have analysed the constituent “sermons” both theologically and according to the rules of rhetoric. Some claim that Alemán has cast Tridentine teaching on Original Sin and Justification into a “modern” form; others, that the work continues the medieval miscellany tradition.4 Common to these interpretations is the assumption...
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SOURCE: Johnson, Carroll. Introduction to Inside Guzmán de Alfarache, pp. 1-9. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1978.
[In the following essay, Johnson examines some of the many competing interpretations of Guzmán de Alfarache, himself concentrating on the discrepancies between Guzmán's adventures and Alemán's sermonizing.]
The preeminence of Don Quijote in the history of the modern novel, while demonstrating a facet of the general debt of Western literature to the Hispanic tradition, has been largely responsible for the widespread ignorance or misunderstanding of the other great prose narration that stands together with the Quijote at the headwaters of “our” novel. That work is the picaresque Guzmán de Alfarache (1599 and 1604) by Cervantes's contemporary, Mateo Alemán. In its time Guzmán de Alfarache was the most popular and influential work of Spanish literature in existence, including Don Quijote. It was translated into the major languages almost immediately and was at least as popular as the Quijote outside of Spain. Mateo Alemán was called the “Divine Spaniard” by the same Europeans who considered Cervantes an amiable clown. In our time Guzmán de Alfarache is important, if no longer popular or influential. It is an excitingly modern work whose relevance has been reestablished by a convergence of three important...
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SOURCE: Johnson, Carroll. “D. Álvaro de Luna and the Problem of Impotence in Guzmán de Alfarache.” Journal of Hispanic Philology 8, no. 1 (Fall 1983): 33-47.
[In the following essay, Johnson discusses themes of impotence in Guzmán de Alfarache.]
It is customary to consider the interpolated novelettes in Guzmán de Alfarache either as more or less light-hearted entertainment and demonstrations of the author's virtuosity in several narrative conventions, or on the other hand as proof of Alemán's inability to free himself from his pessimistic world view, his preoccupation with frustration and deceit. In the first instance the critic finds himself forced to discover and call attention to a brighter side of Dorido's brutal murder of Oracio (I, iii, 10), and in the second he finds himself insisting that the well-intentioned deceptions of Ozmín and Daraja (I, i, 8) are examples of the rankest perfidy. Rather than attempt to pronounce definitively for one or the other interpretation, I should like to continue a line of investigation initiated by Francisco Rico and consider one such novella in relation to its immediate contexts within the Guzmán, as a reflection of a structure so fundamental that the term obsessive would not be out of place to describe it.1 I refer to the story of Don Luis de Castro and Don Rodrigo de Montalvo (II, i, 4), which, although not taken...
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SOURCE: Willem, Linda M. “Variations on Engaño and Honra in the Interpolated Novelettes of Guzmán de Alfarache.” Hispanic Journal 8, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 7-20.
[In the following essay, Willem discusses how Alemán inserts several novelettes into Guzmán de Alfarache to accentuate his overarching themes concerning honor and deceit.]
In general, critical opinion concerning the role of the interpolated novelettes in Guzmán de Alfarache falls into two camps: those who consider them to be significantly linked to the main narrative; and those who see them as extraneous stories which serve the essentially decorative function of providing a diversion from the picaresque adventures while displaying Alemán's virtuosity at affecting a variety of literary styles. Condemnation or praise of the novelettes in consistent with the individual critic's degree of commitment to structural unity. Consequently, the scholars of the latter group are divided in their assessment of the appropriateness of the interpolated material's presence, while those of the first category hail the stories as legitimate variations in style and plot which develop the structural devices or thematic concerns posited in the larger framework. In this vein, Donald McGrady (145-167) and Robert J. Glickman (88-127) view the novelettes as exemplary tales which share with the digressions in the main text the...
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SOURCE: Longhurst, C. A. “The Problem of Conversion and Repentance in Guzmán de Alfarache.” In A Face Not Turned to the Wall: Essays on Hispanic Themes for Gareth Alban Davies, pp. 85-110. Leeds: University of Leeds, 1987.
[In the following essay, Longhurst surveys critical reactions regarding Guzmán's authentic conversion.]
Interpretations of Guzmán de Alfarache have undergone a drastic change of direction over the last ten years or so, thanks largely to the efforts of American scholars. I am thinking mainly, though not exclusively, of the recent books of Joan Arias, Carroll Johnson and Benito Brancaforte.1
What these books have in common (and they have a great deal in common) is above all that they have called into question the general assumption found not only in the religiously-orientated interpretation of Moreno Báez and A. A. Parker but also in the much more ideologically neutral studies of critics such as Donald McGrady, Maurice Molho, Edmond Cros or Francisco Rico, namely that the narrator in Guzmán de Alfarache is a reformed individual whose self-accusation and denunciation of sin are part and parcel of his change of heart.2 More recent critics on the other hand see the narrator either as a hypocritical sycophant (Arias), or as a mentally sick person suffering from an unresolved Oedipal conflict (Johnson), or as a homosexual,...
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SOURCE: Davis, Nina Cox. “Indigestion and Edification in the Guzmán de Alfarache.” Modern Language Notes: Hispanic Issue 104, no. 2 (March 1989): 304-14.
[In the following essay, Davis discusses motifs of eating and digestion in Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache to explore themes of literary deception.]
The tendency of Guzmán criticism in recent decades has been to focus on the conclusion of Part II, the account of the narrator's alleged repentence and religious conversion while serving life sentence as a galley slave.1 By reading the nearly one-thousand page fictive autobiography solely in terms of its closing chapters, as an example of—or response to—Counterreformation apologetics, modern readers cast Spain's first so-called picaresque novel as a startling anomaly within the genre which it created.
The outcome of the convict-turned-author's story must of course also be considered in light of his statement of intent in the opening pages of the novel. While Guzmán is not made to preface his relato with a prologue like Lázaro's, the primary patterns of motivation and behavior that give shape to the novel's discourse are expressed clearly in the first three chapters. The narrator Guzmán tells us that he has been inspired to live a life of deception by his desire to create for himself a lasting appearance of honor, much in the fashion of his...
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SOURCE: Davis, Nina Cox. “Guzmán('s) Swindles.” Symposium 43, no. 3 (Fall 1989): 194-208.
[In the following essay, Davis argues that the stories of how Guzmán swindles a silversmith, a merchant, and his uncle offer clues to the Guzmán's greatest deception of all—deceiving readers into believing his final conversion is authentic.]
Since its publication in 1599, Guzmán de Alfarache has been the subject of controversy, and its critics remain divided today. They debate Alemán's message, agreeing only that the novel is structured on a complex and problematic narrative. The fictive author Guzmán is made to relate his past and comment on it for the readers' edification, but the intricate shifts in his account between diegesis and mimesis often obscure both his reasoning and its relationship to episodes in the plot.1 Moreno Báez and other scholars have attempted to clarify this contrapuntal narration by arguing that both “consejos” and “consejas” work along separate temporal planes to convey a univocal argument.2 According to them, as narrator of an exemplary Counter-Reformation fiction, the penitent author Guzmán condemns his past wrongs while giving a verisimilar account of them. However, some critics have shown that the narrator does not structure his memoirs with the clarity that the work's didactic intentions lead readers to expect. McGrady (95) and Parker...
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SOURCE: Whitenack, Judith A. “‘Bonifacio y Dorotea’ and the Merchandising of Love.” Hispanic Review 58, no. 1 (winter 1990): 57-71.
[In the following essay, Whitenack examines the tale Bonifacio y Dorotea in Guzmán de Alfarache, concluding that mercantile interests are of far greater importance to themes in the narration than Guzmán's sexual deviancy.]
It is no news for readers of Guzmán de Alfarache that Guzmán's wife, mother and grandmother were all prostitutes. We also know that Guzmán, following the pattern set by the man who was probably his father, lived for a time on his wife Gracia's earnings and even acted as her alcahuete. Indeed, Guzmán's unsavory relationships with women from early childhood on have given rise to various psychoanalytical analyses of his warped sexuality and his possible homosexual inclinations (Brancaforte; Cros; Johnson). I do not disagree entirely with these interpretations, but I consider Guzmán's mercantile obsessions to be the ultimate controlling factor in his behavior, even with women. In this context I am proposing a new reading of the interpolated tale “Bonifacio y Dorotea,” both for its own sake and for the light it sheds on Alemán's complicated protagonist.
Before the recent proliferation of new interpretations of the Guzmán, the standard approach was to treat the four main interpolated tales...
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Arias, Joan. Guzmán de Alfarache: The Unrepentant Narrator. London: Tamesis Books Limited, 1977, 106 p.
Full-length study of Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache which argues that Guzmán's final conversion serves to demonstrate the Christian doctrine of original sin.
Cascardi, Anthony J. “The Rhetoric of Defense in the Guzmán de Alfarache.” Neophilologus 63, no. 3 (July 1979): 380-88.
Concentrates on elements of social and moral defense by the narrator of Alemán's Guzmán de Alfarache.
Davis, Nina Cox. Autobiography as Burla in the Guzmán de Alfarache. London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1991, 153 p.
Describes the serious function of jokes in the Guzmán de Alfarache.
Howard Mancing. “Embedded Narration in Guzmán de Alfarache.” In Ingeniosa Invención: Essays on Golden Age Spanish Literature for Geoffrey L. Stagg in Honor of His Eighty-fifth Birthday, edited by Ellen Anderson and Amy R. Willaimsen, pp. 69-99. Newark, N.J.: Juan de la Cuesta, 1999.
Identifies the interpolated stories and anecdotes Alemán uses in his Guzmán de Alfarache.
McGrady, Donald. Mateo Alemán. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1968, 190 p.
Full-length study of...
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