Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5184
The Helmsman: a black man killed by arrows shot by natives
The Russian: man who greets Marlow at Kurtz’s station
While on his boat, Marlow hears the manager and his uncle talk about Kurtz. They stand on the shore alongside the steamboat. Without moving, he listens. The manager fears Kurtz’s influence. Threatened by Kurtz’s influence and success, the manager says, “Am I the manager—or am I not?” The uncle hopes the climate will eventually ruin Kurtz.
From the “absurd sentences,” Marlow hears how Kurtz had traveled three hundred miles with a shipment of ivory nine months ago. Kurtz had then returned upriver in a canoe with four native paddlers, a “half-caste” left in charge of delivering the load of ivory. Kurtz’s station has been without goods and stores since then. Kurtz’s motives escape the manager and his uncle. Marlow says he sees Kurtz in his mind for the first time, how he faces the wilderness and desolation. The half-caste, a “scoundrel” to the manager and his uncle, had told of Kurtz’s illness and how he had “recovered imperfectly.” They walk away from Marlow, then return close to the boat again. When they speak this time, Marlow is not sure if they are talking about Kurtz, or about someone else in Kurtz’s district of whom the manager disapproves. The manager says neither of them will be free until “one of these fellows is hanged.” They agree that the real danger begins in Europe, where the orders come from. The manager quotes something Kurtz had said: “Each station should be like a beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.” He calls Kurtz an “ass” for his ideas and his desire to be a manager one day. The uncle reassures his nephew when he says, “ … I say, trust to this.” He points to the jungle around him while he speaks, as if to say all these things will help you destroy Kurtz. Marlow jumps up to look at the forest, half expecting to receive an answer from the darkness. They knew he had been listening, he says, because they went back to the station “pretending not to know anything of my existence.” Side by side, they walk away, their unequal shadows trailing behind them. The Eldorado Expedition leaves for the wilderness a few days later. In the future, Marlow finds out all the donkeys died, as well as the blacks, “the less valuable animals.”
Marlow is excited about meeting Kurtz soon. It will not happen for two more months, though. They encounter warm air, empty streams, and the deep forest as they travel upriver. Marlow compares it to going back to the beginning of the world. Hippos and alligators line the sand-banks. Stillness and silence brood over everything. He has to watch for hidden banks to avoid damaging the boat. He looks for wood to burn for the next day’s steaming. He refers to the details of his job as “monkey tricks,” as the mysterious Truth watches him. He says when you attend to things on the surface, reality fades. The inner truth, he adds, is “hidden—luckily.”
For a moment, we return to the men aboard the Nellie. One man says, “Try to be civil, Marlow.” The narrator knows one person besides himself is listening. Driving the boat, Marlow says, resuming his story, was like a “blindfolded man set to drive a van over a bad road.” He sweats and shivers over worrying about the boat. Once, he needs twenty cannibals to help push the boat. With sarcasm and humor, he says they at least did not “eat each other before my face.” He recalls the smell of rotten hippo-meat the cannibals had brought with them. With the manager and three or four pilgrims holding their staves aboard, they pass white men greeting them with joy about ivory, the word itself ringing in the air. Massive trees fill the immense landscape. Marlow’s journey is now headed “towards Kurtz—exclusively.” He is not sure who it crawls to for the pilgrims. He hears the roll of drums, but does not understand if they signify war, peace, or prayer. The snapping of a twig can shatter the stillness of dawn. He again compares his journey to prehistoric times. Ancient man curses, prays, and welcomes them. Like phantoms, they glide past their surroundings. When natives howl and leap, Marlow thinks not how different they are from him, but their “remote kinship” to him. He says it is “ugly,” if you are at least willing to admit it. He philosophizes about man’s mind, and how it encompasses all periods of time and knowledge. Man must meet the truth with his own strength, not an external force.
Someone on the Nellie grunts a question. Marlow answers by saying he did not go ashore because he had to worry about the steampipes and the boat. Marlow mentions the fireman, a black man who keeps fire in the boiler. He could have been on shore with the natives, but instead helps Marlow because he has been trained for a profession. His filed teeth, strange patterns shaved on his head, and three scars on each of his cheeks fit well with his belief that an evil spirit lived inside the boiler. Both Marlow and the fireman are too busy with their jobs to think about their “creepy thoughts.”
Marlow reaches a reed hut fifty miles below the Inner Station, Kurtz’s domain. He finds a stack of firewood and a note: “Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously.” Marlow knows something is wrong, but is not sure what. They look into the jungle, but find no clues. In the hut, with a plank on two posts serving as a table and rubbish in a dark corner, he finds a coverless book, An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship. He handles it with care, even though it is not an “enthralling book.” Marlow appreciates the work and concern required to write it. Finding the book and looking at the notes in cipher along the margin equal an “extravagant mystery” for Marlow.
While absorbed with the book, Marlow forgets the forest, the manager, and woodpile. When he looks up, everything has gone. The pilgrims shout at him, as he puts the book in his pocket. The boat is loaded and ready to go. The manager calls the white man who had lived in the hut an “intruder.” He assumes he is English, but this will not protect him from trouble unless he is careful. No one in the world is safe from trouble, Marlow observes with “assumed innocence.”
Convinced the more rapid current will overpower the steamer, Marlow expects the boat to give “her last gasp.” Somehow, though, it moves on. Marlow thinks of what he will say to Kurtz when he meets him. Then he experiences a “flash of insight” and realizes the importance of this affair is under the surface, beyond his understanding.
In two days they are eight miles from Kurtz’s station. The manager suggests they wait until morning for safety. Annoyed, Marlow reasons that one more night means little after so many months. The unnatural silence makes him believe he is deaf. At three in the morning, fish leap, their splash reminding Marlow of gun fire. Fog accompanies the rising sun. It lifts by eight or nine in the morning. He orders the anchor, which they were taking in, to be paid out again. A clamor “modulated in savage discords” through the air. It ends in a shriek, then stops, leaving silence. Frightened, the pilgrims rush for their guns—Winchesters. They anticipate an attack.
Marlow notices the different expressions on the whites and blacks aboard the ship. The whites look discomposed, shocked at the frightful noise. Though interested, the blacks remain calm. They grunt to each other. One black man says they should catch the people hiding in the jungle. When Marlow asks why, he says, “Eat ’im!” Bothered at first by this idea, Marlow figures they are hungry. Besides some rations they had brought aboard, they had taken only rotten hippo-meat, which the pilgrims had thrown overboard. In theory, Marlow says, they were to use their payment—three nine-inch pieces of brass—to purchase food at the villages. They could not, though, because there were no villages, the people were hostile, or the manager did not want to stop. Sarcastically, Marlow says they could have eaten the wire itself for food. Marlow wonders why the cannibals do not eat the five white men. They could have easily overpowered them. Something had restrained them, but Marlow is not sure what. He and the others look “unwholesome” and “unappetizing,” he concludes. He also believes starvation is easier to fight than “bereavement, dishonor, and perdition of one’s soul….” Fighting hunger requires all of a man’s strength.
The manager wants to push on. Marlow knows they cannot steer properly. The manager authorizes him to “take all the risks.” Marlow refuses. The manager defers to his judgment. Marlow turns away from the manager to look into the fog. He compares the adventures in approaching Kurtz to an “enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle.” The manager fears an attack. Marlow believes the thick fog will prevent it. He associates “sorrow” with the natives, not violence. Marlow feels the pilgrims stare at him as if he is mad. He watches the fog the way a “cat watches a mouse.” Marlow interprets the natives’ actions as protective and desperate, not aggressive or even defensive.
They travel through the thick fog until they come within a mile and a half below Kurtz’s station. A bright green islet appears in the middle of the stream. Marlow can steer either left or right, with each path looking similar. He chooses the western passage because he had been informed the station was on the west side. It is narrower than he had anticipated. He steers the boat close to the bank, where the water is deepest. Marlow mentions the helmsman, a black man who thinks highly of himself. He wears a pair of brass earrings and blue cloth wrapper. When Marlow is next to him, this man steers with “no end of a swagger,” but if no one is near he falls “prey to an abject funk.” Marlow looks at the sounding-pole sticking further out of the water each time the poleman puts it in. This indicates how the water turns shallow.
The next moment, the poleman falls flat to the deck without the pole, and the fireman sits ducking by his furnace. Arrows fly. Marlow instructs the helmsman to steer straight. The pilgrims fire their guns into the jungle. Letting go of the steering, the helmsman grabs a gun. Marlow yells at him to return to his duty. He may have as well “ordered a tree not to sway in the wind.” Instead, he steers the boat toward the bank. They hit overhanging bushes.
The helmsman holds his rifle and yells at the shore. Something big appears in the air, knocking the helmsman back. His head hits the wheel twice. He rolls back and stares up at Marlow, a shaft of spear sticking below his ribs. He lands at Marlow’s feet. The helmsman’s blood fills Marlow’s shoes. The helmsman clutches the spear while Marlow forces himself to turn away from him and steer. He pulls the steam whistle cord repeatedly with one hand. The warlike yells die, the arrows stop.
Marlow and a pilgrim in pink pajamas stand over the helmsman. He dies without making a sound, a frown coming over his face at the last moment. Marlow tells the agent to steer. He tugs at his shoelaces. He believes Kurtz is dead now, too. Marlow throws one shoe overboard. He feels disappointment in not being able to speak with Kurtz now. Even though he had heard Kurtz was a swindler and thief, Marlow feels he is still a “gifted creature.” Kurtz’s ability to talk still fascinates him. He throws his other shoe overboard. Marlow thinks he has missed his destiny in life if he cannot hear Kurtz talk. He feels more lonely than if he had been “robbed of a belief.”
On the Nellie, Marlow lights his pipe. The match shows his narrow face and dropped eyelids. He draws on his pipe, then the match goes out. This momentary switch in scene ends.
Marlow speaks of missing the privilege of listening to Kurtz. He amazes himself that he does not shed tears over missing Kurtz. He considers Kurtz “very little more than a voice.” The “I” narrator cuts in again, telling us that Marlow becomes silent for a long time. We return quickly to Marlow’s story. Marlow now jumps ahead in his story. He mentions women, specifically Kurtz’s Intended, who will not appear until the end of the novella, after Marlow returns from Africa. He says she is “out of it,” meaning out of touch with all that happened in Africa. He talks of Kurtz’s baldness, an “ivory ball” of a head. Marlow marvels at the amount of ivory Kurtz had collected. It fills the mud shanty and the boat when they load it. There could not be a single tusk either above or below the ground. He says Kurtz watched over it and referred to everything as belonging to him.
Speaking philosophically, Marlow says Kurtz belonged to the “powers of darkness.” He adds how Kurtz sat “amongst the devils of the land….” He tells about Kurtz’s background, how he had been educated in England with a half-English mother and a half-French father. He says all “Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.” He finds out how Kurtz had been instructed by the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs to write a report. Marlow sees it later, seventeen pages written before Kurtz’s nerves “went wrong.” A beautiful piece of writing, it described Kurtz presiding at midnight dances with unspeakable rites.
Marlow recalls Kurtz’s words. In one section, Kurtz had written how the blacks approach the whites as if they possess the “might as of a deity….” He also had written “Exterminate all the brutes.” Marlow considers the writing to be the “unbounded power of words.” He tells how Kurtz believed his pamphlet would secure his future career. Kurtz was not common, Marlow says. His power to charm had influenced the natives, as well as himself. He cannot forget him, yet he is not sure it was worth the helmsman’s death to reach him.
Marlow ends his jump ahead in the story, the “flash-forward.” He returns to the helmsman’s death. Marlow misses the helmsman and the partnership they had developed as they worked together. The bond now broken, he remembers the “profundity” of the helmsman’s look before he had died. Marlow puts on dry slippers, then throws the helmsman’s body overboard. The current takes his body, it rolls over twice, then disappears. Marlow says he had been a second-rate helmsman, but now he would be a first-class temptation—meaning food for the cannibals. Marlow steers after the funeral. Everyone on board believes Kurtz is dead. One red-haired pilgrim says they must have slaughtered everyone. Marlow says they at least had made a lot of smoke. He thinks they had missed their targets during the fight, by shooting too high. The screeching whistle had sent them running, he maintains. The manager talks of getting down the river for safety before it turns dark.
A decaying building with the jungle background fills the slope of a hill. They finally see the station. A white man wearing a hat like a cartwheel motions to them. Other human forms glide through the jungle. Marlow stops the engine and lets the boat drift. The manager tells the man about the attack. The man knows about it and says everything is all right. He reminds Marlow of a harlequin: bright clothes of blue, red, and yellow sparkling in the sun. He looks young with a boyish face, no beard, and little blue eyes. He asks Marlow if he is English, and Marlow answers with the same question. Pointing up the hill, he tells them Kurtz is there. Armed, the manager and pilgrims go to the house. The man comes aboard. He says the whistle will scare the natives, “simple people,” he calls them. The sound of the whistle works better to drive the natives away than guns do, he says. People don’t talk to Mr. Kurtz, he adds, they listen to him. The son of an arch-priest, he is Russian, had run away from school, and served on English ships. He had been wandering alone on the river for two years. He is twenty-five, not so young as he looks. He tells Marlow the small house, stack of wood, and note were his. Marlow hands him the book. He makes as if to kiss Marlow, but restrains himself. Marlow finds out that the notes in the book are in Russian, not cipher. He tells Marlow that the natives had attacked because they do not want Kurtz to be taken away, not to kill him and the crew. Kurtz has “enlarged” his mind, he adds. He opens his arms and stares at Marlow.
Marlow hears second-hand information about Kurtz from the manager and his uncle. Their opinion of him contrasts Marlow’s growing admiration for Kurtz. He gathers bits from them about Kurtz, the way we gather bits from him. He anticipates meeting Kurtz, mirroring our interest. Their fear of Kurtz and his success parallels Marlow’s desire to meet him and draw his own conclusions. Marlow understands Kurtz’s fine business sense when the manager talks of the ivory, “lots of it,” coming from Kurtz’s station. This period establishes Marlow’s changing reason for his journey. At first, it was for the job and the adventure, but now Kurtz occupies his thoughts. He says he seemed “to see Kurtz for the first time.” Surrounded by paddling savages, Kurtz leads the way “towards the depth of the wilderness.” At this time, Marlow does not understand Kurtz’s rejection of conventional society for unknown territory.
We come to see how the manager and his uncle represent the selfishness and greediness of civilized Europe. They care only about themselves, their positions, and promotions. They ridicule Kurtz’s philosophy of how each station should be a “beacon on the road towards better things, a center for trade of course, but also for humanizing, improving, instructing.” Kurtz’s idyllic vision aggravates them. Ironically, we will find out how Kurtz’s life and practices contrast with his once idealistic views. When the manager’s uncle asks him if he feels well, we see the power of the jungle, as it weakens and kills people. The uncle gestures toward the forest as he suggests how the climate may destroy Kurtz. Marlow calls the man’s wishes a “treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart.” Physically, the jungle conquers most men, leaving only the strong to live on. The power of nature overwhelms the power of man.
Marlow then compares traveling farther into the jungle to prehistoric times. The “empty stream,” “great silence,” and “impenetrable forest” validate this association. No civilization or laws governed people then. Marlow recalls his own past “in the shape of an unrestful and noisy dream, remembered with wonder amongst the overwhelming realities of this strange world of plants, and water, and silence.” As he journeys deeper into the forest, reality fades. A dream-like quality, with its “inner truth” surfaces. He adds to this idea of the ancient past without laws by speaking of the cannibals on the boat. These “fine fellows” show their progression to modern man by working well and not eating each other in front of Marlow. As civilized and tamed people, they fit Marlow’s European view of man, not the native African, which he speaks of next. As the drums roll, Marlow sees the natives on shore. Their howling, leaping, and spinning thrill him. Their behavior evokes a “remote kinship with this wild and passionate roar.” Instead of rejecting their outbursts, Marlow identifies with them; he understands that part in himself. Since the “mind of man is capable of anything,” Marlow intellectually merges past and present.
This enables him to meet the truth before him—these savages dancing in the jungle. Notice how the farther he moves away from Europe, the more he identifies with the natives. The fireman, who fires the boiler, represents a combination of both worlds, savage and civilized. Marlow says he “ought to have been clapping his hands and stamping his feet on the bank.” Physically, he resembles a typical native. He wears a charm made of rags around his arm and a piece of polished bone through his lower lip. He considers the fire in the boiler to be an “evil spirit.” Since “he had been instructed,” though, he works on the boat. He personifies the transformation from the savage native to the educated white man. Marlow compares him to a dog walking on his hind-legs, which simultaneously insults and compliments him.
The hut they come upon some fifty miles below the Inner Station foreshadows Marlow’s meeting with the Russian and a packet of papers Kurtz will give him. We find out at the end of Section II of Heart of Darkness that the Russian had left the note, firewood, and book. Marlow handles the coverless book, An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship, “with the greatest possible tenderness.” A plain book, this work attracts Marlow because it represents “an honest concern for the right way of going to work.” He appreciates the care necessary to write it. He compares having to stop reading to tearing himself “away from the shelter of an old and solid friendship.” Later, in Section III, when Kurtz hands Marlow his personal papers, Marlow will handle them with extreme care, too. Their value transcends their tattered appearance.
As the boat progresses up the river, Marlow and the manager disagree about their navigation. The manager urges caution, while Marlow wants to push on. Fearing the warning alluded to in the Russian’s note, the manager suggests traveling in daylight for safety. Yearning “to talk openly with Kurtz,” Marlow intends to get there as quickly as possible. Any delay annoys him. He disregards the dangers.
Marlow returns to the idea of the savage cannibals. They belong to the beginnings of time and eat rotten hippo-meat. He marvels at how they simply do not overpower the white men to eat them. For all their supposed barbarity, the savages and cannibals control their behavior more than the white man, who initiates violence in the search for ivory and wealth. The cannibals’ “primitive honor” restrains them from physical aggression. They even check their hunger through some kind of restricting code of law. The arguments between Marlow and the manager build the tension and accentuate their differences. Since Marlow thinks of Kurtz as “an enchanted princess sleeping in a fabulous castle,” he wants to avoid caution and further delays. The closer Marlow gets to Kurtz, the more reckless he becomes. The manager always remains wary. Marlow’s personal quest interferes with the manager’s business-like approach. The forest turns thickest within a mile and a half of Kurtz’s station. Trees stand in “serried ranks,” twigs overhang the “current thickly,” and a “broad strip of shadow” falls across the water.
Conrad intends this blurring on literal and symbolic levels. While the vegetation prevents Marlow from seeing the natives in the jungle, man’s humanity and morality mix with his inhumanity and immorality. It becomes difficult to distinguish one from the other. The jungle disguises man’s external and internal worlds. The densely matted forest allows the natives to attack Marlow’s boat. Marlow sees “human limbs in movement” in the “tangled gloom,” but cannot prepare for the arrows. The pilgrims, with their more sophisticated weapons, lose any advantage they might have. Accustomed to the jungle, the natives seize the initiative with their primitive spears. The pilgrims fire at random into the forest. They cannot see their targets, but their targets can see them. The helmsman’s death in battle establishes Marlow’s growing obsession with meeting Kurtz.
The helmsman suffers a horrible death, a spear hitting him in the side below the ribs. He spills a pool of blood onto the floor and Marlow’s feet. After watching him die, Marlow thinks that Kurtz must be dead as well. “For the moment that was the dominant thought,” he adds, showing his disregard for the helmsman’s life. This man means little to him in relation to Kurtz. Later, he checks himself by saying that meeting Kurtz may not have been “exactly worth the life we lost in getting to him.” When Marlow next considers Kurtz to “present himself as a voice,” we see how Conrad connects him to Kurtz. In Section I, the narrator had said Marlow telling his story “had been no more to us than a voice.” The way we listen to Marlow parallels the way Marlow listens to Kurtz. Marlow believes Kurtz to be “something altogether without substance.” This is what Marlow is for us, the reader—merely a voice speaking words. Of course, Conrad throws in a catch. There is “substance” to Kurtz’s story and Marlow’s story. Marlow must interpret Kurtz’s words, while we must interpret Marlow’s words. These comparisons determine important distinctions. Marlow is like Kurtz because he leads, but he also resembles us because he listens.
Next, Conrad interrupts Marlow’s story to return to the Nellie. These transitions accomplish two things: one, they force us to listen more intently; two, they break the dream-like quality of Marlow’s journey by bringing us back to the reality of the present on the boat. The first time, Marlow lights his pipe, which illuminates his face momentarily. The second time, Marlow becomes silent. The idea of light and dark couples with sound and silence. The alternating shades of white and black suggest the good and evil of the actions of Marlow’s company toward the natives, the changing shades in the jungle, and the white Europeans and the black Africans. The sound and silence reflect the intermittent noises in the jungle, and Kurtz’s voice in life against his silence in death for Marlow.
Marlow then jumps forward in his narrative. By breaking the chronological structure, Conrad again forces us to listen to Marlow’s suggestion of looking beneath the surface to understand the finer points of his tale. We cannot simply accept the story as told, but must consider how Conrad gives us information. The deception Conrad incorporates in his narrative mirrors the deception Marlow encounters in the jungle. While he navigates the Congo, we navigate his story.
One oversight affects the rest of the journey/story. In his jump ahead, Marlow offers us glimpses of Kurtz before he appears. First, he mentions Kurtz’s Intended, the woman who waits for him in Europe. She will not appear until the end of the novella. He covets ivory, with his bald head even summoning the image of “an ivory ball.” He refers to everything as “my,” and belongs to the powers of darkness. Kurtz represents evil, a connection to man’s dark side. In a “high seat amongst the devils of the land,” Kurtz leads the natives in literal and symbolic ways. Marlow’s ambition of speaking to Kurtz shows how he wants to embrace and understand Kurtz, his world, and his philosophy. In a sense, Marlow wants to transform himself into one of the natives, a follower of this mad deity. Marlow attributes Kurtz’s origin not to Africa and the jungle, but Europe. Since “all Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz,” we see how Conrad rejects the idea of the black natives as evil, instead accusing the white European society of creating this devilish man. Here, Conrad flips the traditional image of white/good and black/bad around. Appearances can be deceiving, as the jungle often proves. Kurtz’s report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs enhances his relationship to the dark side. Marlow learns of the “unspeakable rites” Kurtz presided at, the sacrifices “offered up to him,” and the “exterminate all the brutes” ideology he espoused. Kurtz preaches a racial inequality, with the blacks looking at the whites “in the nature of supernatural beings.” Ironically, Kurtz becomes a savage while reporting for their suppression. Marlow does not say whether he approves of Kurtz’s ideas, even if he admires the “unbounded power of eloquence” of the words. Confused by the contradicting images of Kurtz, Marlow thinks that “whatever he was, he was not common.” He could “charm or frighten rudimentary souls.”
In Section I, the narrator said “Marlow was not typical.” Conrad develops another similarity, here, suggesting how Marlow charms us with his words, and frightens us with them, as well. Marlow says Kurtz will not be forgotten, which he will assure because “as it turned out, he was to have the care of his memory.” Will we carry on Marlow’s memory?
The appearance of the Russian next adds a sort of strange, humorous element to the story. A brightly dressed “harlequin” with blue, red, and yellow patches over all his clothes, this man announces Kurtz’s presence to Marlow. He is reminiscent of the “Fool” in Shakespeare’s King Lear, a character who looks nonsensical, yet imparts much wisdom. He speaks to Marlow while the manager and pilgrims investigate Kurtz’s situation. He fills in some missing details for Marlow. He tells him that the hut, firewood, and note had been his. He explains how the natives had run for fear from the boat’s whistle, adding how they “don’t want him to go”—meaning Kurtz. And, most importantly for Marlow, he relates how Kurtz’s speaking had captivated him. Almost as a sign of thanks for these bits of information, Marlow gives him the book he had found in the hut. The Russian returns the thanks by making to kiss Marlow, but “restrained himself.” This act foreshadows Marlow’s return of Kurtz’s manuscript to Kurtz’s Intended at the end of the novella. Marlow always handles with care the things he treasures, particularly Kurtz’s memory. The Russian says Kurtz has “enlarged” his mind. Kurtz’s life has answered some deep need for the Russian. Marlow’s need to meet Kurtz will be answered shortly, in the next section. For the moment, though, when the Russian “opened his arms wide,” Marlow receives his long-awaited invitation to Kurtz’s world. This last image alludes to a religious service, where a priest (the Russian) invites his parishioner (Marlow) to worship their god (Kurtz).
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