Coercion to Speak in J. M. Coetzee’s Life & Times of Michael K

Arnd Bohm, Carleton University, Ottawa

They want me to open my heart and tell them the story of a
life lived in cages. They want to hear about all the cages
I have lived in, as if I were a budgie or a
white mouse or a monkey.[1]

Reading J. M. Coetzee’s short novel, Life & Times of Michael K, which won the Booker Prize in 1983, is a shattering experience. Set against the background of the South African police state as it attempted to maintain apartheid by any means, the plot unfolds as a relentless dissection of the logic of oppression. Michael K, a withdrawn and inarticulate gardener, sets out to take his dying mother back to their village in the country. He becomes ensnared in the incomprehensible and undeclared civil war, struggles to scratch out a refuge with his limited resources, and dares to want his share of ground. The precise, understated language underscores that Michael K is an Everyman for this bleak twentieth century.

It is impossible to separate Michael K’s fate from the economy of the neo-colonial world system. The effect of South Africa under apartheid was to turn what remained of the liberal dreams of virtue and of civic freedom into a nightmare. Economic development became permanent exploitation of the many by the few, self-determination was reduced to the reservations of “Homelands,” law and order cloaked institutionalized brutality. Not least among the perversions was the debasing of the value of one of the essential premises of English liberalism: the freedom to speak. The hope of British politics had been that as long as citizens could publish opinions and criticism, all would eventually be well with the Commonwealth. Even if voices go unheard from time to time, some day everyone would have a right to take part in what British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott has felicitously termed the “conversation of mankind.”[2]

The ideal of conversation as the activity most befitting a civil society was given its modern elaboration in the Italian city-states of the Renaissance, and a classical formulation in Stefano Guazzo’s La civile conversatione (1574).[3] The work was rapidly disseminated throughout Europe and saw numerous translations and reprints in English.[4] Guazzo’s reception is indicative of a far-reaching transformation in the conduct of politics both in the public and private spheres. By the early eighteenth century, the rules for polite conversation were virtually indistinguishable from a political ideology advocating a community in which free citizens would participate as equals in an ongoing conversation. The art of conversation would simultaneously train its participants in democratic behavior and confirm that such behavior was legitimate.[5] And in 1959 Michael Oakeshott could still envision conversation as a utopian order in which “different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to one another.”[6] One could write a history of the British Empire as an effort, by many of its proponents, to admit the rest of the world to this utopian community. Indeed, there must still be those who cling to the notion that “the English-speaking peoples” have a claim to the one genuine civil conversation, to a commonwealth of discourse.

But in the movement from the center to the colonized margins, the freedom to speak underwent a transformation. It resurfaced, to borrow Aaron Fogel’s phrase, as the coercion to speak. Instead of the conversation of equals, dialogue in the imperial context becomes ensnared in the unequal distribution of power and wealth. Dialogue is made tangible, to quote Fogel, “as an instrumental practice, conceived on a model of physical events.”[7] If dialogue can be seen as a form of work, of embodied activity, then it will come as no surprise that in the South Africa of Coetzee’s novel the pressures exerted in order to make people labor are also exerted in order to make them speak. In the first part of this essay, I shall read the coercion to speak as a principal theme of Life & Times of Michael K. Then I shall interpret this in light of Heidegger’s critique of technology, in an effort to encompass the phenomena Coetzee indicts. The final part will address the implications of the coercion to speak for the writer Coetzee.

The irony of Michael K’s life is already signalled by the title. Reading the archaic formula “The Life and Times of” we might expect the subtitle “as told by himself.” The exemplary task of biographical or autobiographical narratives has been to let a protagonist’s unique voice be heard openly. Even the non-famous could thereby be ascribed a personality, a subjectivity. But Michael K declines to tell his story: he is unable to tell it. Even in encounters with the few decent human beings in the novel, he remains silent or at best taciturn. The man who shares his food in the hospital yard talks spontaneously about his own problems, but Michael K says nothing: “K listened to the birds in the trees and tried to remember when he had known such happiness” (L 30). The normal condition whereby inner emotions well up and out into a personal narration is somehow unavailable to him. On the occasion when he wants to talk to the family of the kind stranger, words fail him. By using the devices of inner monologue, the narrator is able to establish the important point that Michael K’s condition is something other than anger, refusal, or stupidity. It would be false to interpret silence as a the result of Michael K’s mental state. He has thoughts, memories, longings, but all remain blocked from utterance by a silence that embarrasses sympathetic listeners: “the right words would not come. The children stared at him; a silence fell; their parents looked away” (L 48).

Another mistaken conclusion would be that his harelip is a speech impediment. Barbara Eckstein has argued that the harelip both affects and represents language: “Like the creole or dialects spoken by Africans forced to communicate with Europeans in a European language, Michael’s harelip elicits from his oppressors judgments that he is stupid, laughable, incomprehensible.”[8] However, what Coetzee has written does not sustain such a reading. Michael K’s words are given in clear, grammatical English, without any signals of phonetic aberrations, such as slurring or substitutions of one sound for another. Nor is Eckstein correct in arguing that it is the harelip that stigmatizes Michael K in the eyes of the oppressors: it is that he is black. Michael K is not physically unable to utter sounds, but rather he has systematically been schooled into silence. This education began when his mother, because of her anxieties about having given birth to an imperfect child, isolated him from the community. Unable to succeed in the public school system, he was sent to an institution that aspired to do charitable work with handicapped children but in reality conformed to the procedures of discipline and punishment.

Even though silenced, Michael K is able to think out for and to himself what the Huis Norenius has meant in his life. Paternal/patriarchal authority had shaped the institution: “My mother was the one whose ashes I brought back, he thought, and my father was Huis Norenius. My father was the list of rules on the door of the dormitory, the twenty-one rules of which the first was ‘There will be silence in dormitories at all times …’” (L 104–105). The discipline of silence forbade all personal or private conversation. The children were not permitted to speak to the institution except in response to specific questions, never articulating personal concerns. In the classroom, they were compelled to give correct answers to abstract problems largely irrelevant to their lives (L 110). Silence or the correct answer: those were the only two possibilities. But giving the answer to an arithmetic problem does not teach anyone to tell their own story. The answer leaves behind in unspoken silence the frantic struggle to solve the problem, the cold sweat of the palms, fearing the teacher-examiner, the bafflement of a human being confronting random exercises of power. Personal elements have no value in the category of “correct answer.” They would only interfere with the routine in which the institution sees its primary function.

Having never learned how to talk about himself, Michael K finds it virtually impossible to construct a narrative that would reveal the meaning of his life. Something is awry: “Always, when he tried to explain himself to himself, there remained a gap, a hole, a darkness before which his understanding balked, into which it was useless to pour words. The words were eaten up, the gap remained, his was always a story with a hole in it: a wrong story, always wrong” (L 110). The gap is present even in the privacy of inner thoughts, because all narration has been contaminated with the violence of the institution. What pupils have learned is that any attempt to be subjective is already a “wrong” response. However, that does not mean that the respondents are left in peace. The institution has the power to force them to make utterances, to repeat and to echo the one correct answer. This moment of coercion then remains as the unarticulated accompaniment of every attempt to speak.

In terms of one’s personal story, the coercion manifests itself in various ways. First, there is the compulsion to tell a “correct” story, one in which Michael K has broken no laws. Then, there are the pressures to tell a story that is “interesting.” The paradox in Michael K’s life is that, no matter how exotic the experiences of a poor, oppressed individual from South Africa might seem to readers unfamiliar with poverty or the conditions there, his case cannot be a special one when millions are suffering just as miserably. Because it represents the quotidian experience of an ordinary person from the margin, his story might captivate the readers in London or New York; it will hardly be worth telling in Johannesburg. Michael K accepts the impoverishment that his life’s story represents (L 67). By accepting the truth that his is an ordinary life, Michael K shrugs off the demand to tell an interesting story, one that would satisfy “them,” that is, the readers whose pleasure comes from the consumption of narratives. In the closing pages of the novel, he addresses the problem directly: “They want me to open my heart and tell them the story of a life lived in cages. They want to hear about all the cages I have lived in, as if I were a budgie or a white mouse or a monkey” (L 181). If he were to give in to the audience’s expectation, Michael K would also accept as normal a situation in which the speaker cannot ever tell his own story, but must always proffer the expected version.

Overlapping with the criteria of correctness and interest are the demands for true stories. The irony here is that what is true is determined by the audience, not the speaker. True need not imply important, as all of Michael K’s efforts to communicate with the railway and police clerks demonstrate. Indeed, some truths would seem to be superfluous: “the state of his mother’s health did not constitute special grounds, the clerk told him; on the contrary, he would advise him not to mention her condition at all” (L 9). And later, when Michael K attempts to tell the policewoman about his mother, she interrupts each time the dialogue is about to shift from rote responses to actual personal reporting. The police in Michael K’s world have no need for such stories. Suffering is therefore neither correct nor interesting nor true when uttered by those without power. The “permit” will be granted only to those willing to make their stories conform to official paradigms.

The coercion that is implicit in every exchange between the South African authorities and Michael K becomes explicit once his interrogation at the hands of the soldiers begins. They need a story in order to be able to carry out their orders, and once again it has to be sufficiently interesting: “‘Keep asking him. Ask him when his friends are coming. Ask him when they were last here. See if he’s got a tongue.… ‘You heard what the officer said,’ he said, ‘so tell me. Tell me your story’“ (L 122). The reference to “your” story highlights the absurdity, for it is precisely Michael K’s own version that they do not want. The authorities cannot use his simple explanations. There is no meta-narrative to which they can refer his account of what he has been doing as a gardener in the wilderness, so consequently what he tells them must be dismissed as lies or nonsense. Michael K’s own story, like the pumpkins he raises for his own survival, cannot be integrated into the global system and thus are worthless to the authorities.

The challenge posed by Michael K’s unwillingness to let himself be coerced into speaking forms the core of the events interpolated into the novel as Section Two. There has been some criticism of this shift as somehow rupturing the flow of the novel. Dick Penner feels it “is perhaps best viewed as an aesthetic choice which did not work as well as it might have, one which is a consequence of Coetzee’s feeling a necessity to include a point of view other than Michael K’s.”[9] But in terms of what has happened to conversation, this section ruthlessly extends the exposition of what has happened to the dreams of civil conversation and hence to those still clinging to the pretences of middle-class liberalism. With the figure of the doctor-narrator, the coercion puts on a genteel mask. The infirmary appears at first to be a space where conversation will at least be possible. The doctor seems genuinely attentive to Michael K as a person, but all too soon his motives are exposed to be inseparable from those of the police and the military. The doctor also wants to know something about Michael K, so he tries repeatedly to persuade Michael K to talk. But the story he is given is not the one he expects. Gradually, the doctor’s complicity with the authorities emerges, as he demands that Michael tell the police something: “You want to live, don’t you? Well then, talk, make your voice heard …” (L 140). The reiteration of “polite civilized gentlemen” underscores the extent to which this situation is a mockery of the ideal of the conversatione civile. It is not a discussion among equals by any means, and the threat of violence is hardly veiled.

Since Michael K has nothing to say, the doctor becomes increasingly exasperated and finally desperate. For the purposes of the system—to keep it functioning smoothly—he proposes fabricating the necessary story: “Make up something for the report” (L 141). The doctor’s story is a montage assembled from bits and pieces of the meta-narrative that keeps the South African system going, replete with terrorists in the mountains. The doctor has no difficulty in spinning out the yarn, because all that is required is that it satisfy the criteria set by the audience. His rationalization might be that he is simply helping to protect Michael K, but his actions belie his neutrality. The doctor’s story is the sort of narrative the government wants. By providing it, he is in fact substantiating the government’s view of reality.

An important dimension needed to make the doctor’s story plausible in this context—plausible to the authorities—is that Michael K must be available as a heroic figure. The doctor speculates with Michael K until even inert, passive behavior can be revalued as action of the heroic proportion required by the state’s meta-narrative (L 164–65). The doctor’s monologue, which pretends to be a dialogue even when the interlocutor is absent, no longer requires correction by the other person. The wild story concocted by the doctor addresses a “you” who is actually nothing more than a version of his “I.” Dialogic interaction is not possible under such conditions.

This is an appropriate juncture at which to take issue with Michael Marais’s reading of the novel, especially the tentative evaluation of the doctor. According to Marais, the doctor is becoming “aware of his otherness, an awareness of the discourse into which he attempts to intercalate K.”[10] Out of this realization, the doctor might begin to grasp “that he is a product of the discourse of power relations.”[11] However, if this were the case, then one might expect the doctor to either fall silent or to engage in a conversation of equals with Michael K, since either of those options would undermine coercion. The doctor does neither and therefore cannot alter the situation in which he and Michael K are caught. Hampering the doctor is the longing for an interesting story—about Michael K, about himself, and ultimately about South Africa. One such version would transform the boredom the doctor experiences and Michael K endures into a form of resistance. The narrative of heroic resistance against insurmountable odds then permeates the story Marais projects for the readers’ encounter with Coetzee’s text; their “self-consciousness—the critical reflex of reflexivity in creative writing—implies a provisionality which would resist institutionalization and its concomitant, totalization; resist becoming a term in the structures of power.”[12] In other words, the critic here scripts for the reader an exciting life, just as the doctor had outlined one for Michael K. The problem that remains stubbornly in place is how to avoid coercing readers or interrogating texts. Criticism must not aim for anything as grand as resistance; mere understanding of the other’s position will suffice.

With the revelation that the other’s cooperation is not taken into account under the conditions of coercion, Coetzee’s novel can no longer be encompassed by a discourse of civil politics. The brutality of totalitarianism has dissolved the possibility of a conversation of democratic equals. Thus the hope often invested in the project of a “renewed dialogue” in South Africa would remain unfulfilled until the overall context has been changed. But what is that context? Coetzee has not written a naive political treatise in which the better world is only a revolution away. Something else emerges as a presence in the moment of coercive dialogue, something for which even politicians are ill-prepared. This is the introduction of technology into the system. The demands put by technology to the world transform the conditions for all conversation, for technology’s mode is merely interrogative.

In an ordinary conversation, questions are helpful, as they move us along to understanding each other. Thus, we might begin by asking questions about the novel: Who is Michael K? To what does the “K” refer? What does this story mean? We begin convinced that the questions will be answered or answerable and that the text was made to be questioned. The presumption and the danger of our own attitude are difficult to grasp. It is hard to question questioning. The problem is more than one of establishing lists of types of questions—Socratic, rhetorical, analytic, didactic, and so on. For today, if a question is to be put to questioning, the temptation is to fall into interrogation. As Martin Heidegger patiently explored at the outset of his essay “The Question of Technology,” interrogation is a specific mode of questioning, and one specific to our era.[13] The “question of technology” is how technology has determined the way we frame questions and demand answers. Technology subsists by demanding energy and raw materials from the hapless earth and has taught us to expect, by analogy, answers from the world around us. Where they are not forthcoming, they can be extracted.

A paradigm for an interrogative interaction between a subject and the system is the digital computer. Because it is based upon the binary logic required by the machinery, all of the computer’s decisions must be reduced to yes-or-no choices. The computer’s questions to the user will produce a clear-cut response, because the system is structured to admit only one of two choices. The ambiguities and evasions of conversation are irrelevant. An example of how such a structure might operate in shaping discourse is provided at the end of Part Two in the novel, when the doctor’s sentences collapse into binary options for Michael K: “‘Am I right?’ I would shout. ‘Have I understood you? If I am right, hold up your right hand; if I am wrong, hold up your left!’” (L 167) The problem of mutual understanding has been reduced to a mechanical selection between two alternatives. The doctor speaks from the vantage point of technological interrogation and, at the same time, echoes the questions of the schoolmaster.

In order to focus upon what makes the age of questioning technologically different from other eras, it is instructive to compare Michael K’s world with that of Kafka’s Joseph K. in The Trial. The latter is determined by accusations, rumours, and negotiations for meaning; the former by interrogations. Issues of innocence and guilt might remain to be decided by an accusation, so that Joseph K.’s trial is continually under way. But the truth is of no interest to the South African interrogators. Whether the police, the military or the doctor are asking, Michael K’s answers must conform to the needs of the questions, no matter what he might want to say. But who determines what the needs of the questions are?

The interrogation of Michael K takes its example and its might from the economy upon which South Africa has been constructed. From the beginning of the European presence, South Africa has had meaning only insofar as it yielded wealth from the land and the labor of the people. More blatantly than in Europe, the colonial situation could reveal the connection between the economy of extraction and the advent of technology. Mining for diamonds and gold may be taken as the quintessential South African activities. The work of the miners is governed by the regimen imposed by the requirements of the machines. Once the process is finished, gaping ruins are left behind. The doctor sums up the destination of South African history: “‘When was South Africa discovered?’ ‘1652.’ ‘Where is the biggest man-made hole in the world?’ ‘Kimberley’” (L 158). In the age of technology, the only legitimate purpose is endless extraction.

On the hermeneutic plane, this suggests that the meaning of history will not become apparent at the end of time as a supplement, from which the entire narrative will gain meaning and value. Instead, there will only be a void. This is the conclusion of Michael K’s story as well. There is no resounding message or moral that will offer a permanent truth as the compensation for his slow, steady exhaustion. All that remains is a striking image that inverts the economy of extraction. With only the simplest of devices, Michael K imagines a humble economy in which something valuable could be found in the gap left by the military-industrial system: “He would clear the rubble from the mouth of the shaft, he would bend the handle of the teaspoon in a loop and tie the string to it, he would lower it down the shaft deep into the earth, and when he brought it up there would be water in the bowl of the spoon; and in that way, he would say, one can live” (L 184). Such an ideal is, of course, senseless from the viewpoint of the modern global economy.

There is also the suggestion that such a goal is not acceptable to readers. Something about Life & Times of Michael K has made even sympathetic critics uneasy. D. J. Enright wondered how useful Michael K could be as a role model, describing him as an “unthinking stone, a barely living creature whom no one, apart from an allegorizing medical officer, takes seriously, whom no one takes seriously enough to kill.”[14] On the other hand, Nadine Gordimer finds the novel does not go far enough: “yet it denies the energy of the will to resist evil.”[15] Behind these criticisms is the lingering insistence that writers living under oppressive regimes have an obligation to challenge tyranny. But it is doubtless easier to demand outspoken actions than to perform them.

Coetzee explores some of the paradoxes to which writers are subjected in totalitarian states in an essay on the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. As Coetzee observes, the actions of the writer living under a repressive regime cannot be judged as if they had taken place in freedom: “Writing under censorship, the writer may produce a text identical in all respects to the text he would have produced in a state of ideal freedom; in this sense he has indeed been unaffected by the censorship. But to say that such a writer has transcended or overcome or escaped the censorship depends on an ahistorical and simplistic notion of what writing, and indeed the institution of literature, is.… Publication in a regime of censorship is a different kind of act from publication in conditions of freedom; whether the work appears with or without the censor’s imprimatur, reading it—and, in such a society, reading in general—is a more complex , more suspicious activity.”[16]

One difference is that a work published under censorship must resist the suggestion of complicity and the possibility that the very appearance of the text legitimates the state. Perversely, the state benefits most when the censored text is blatantly “about politics,” for then it can claim that there is nevertheless enough freedom for those who are willing to remain within the law. The writer is therefore compelled to avoid outright political commentary in order to preclude being appropriated, yet to do so in such a way that the readers can recognize the underlying critique. Thus the writer must rely upon readers who will be able to cope with allegory, fable, allusion, and similar forms of open textual subversion.

Had he given in to the expectation that his novel should take an overt stand, Coetzee would have simplified the censor’s task greatly. In this respect, the censor is the instrument of the coercion to speak being directed against the author: Coetzee inhabits the same world as Michael K. By refusing to answer questions and by not producing an “interesting” story, Michael K has avoided becoming the subject of a history written by others. They may speculate about him, but they cannot count upon his cooperation in maintaining the official narrative. Similarly, Coetzee’s studied refusal to become a “political writer” preserved the small space for freedom of expression available to writers in South Africa. The novel then is Coetzee’s pumpkin patch, at once vulnerable to destruction and an alternative to the extractive economy.

It cannot be easy for an intelligent writer to rely upon silence and evasion. Who would not rather participate in the open conversation of equals? Yet Coetzee is consistent in his unwillingness to give in to interrogations, even when they are relatively harmless, as during a literary interview. Frustrated at last with Tony Morphet’s stance, which verged upon insisting that Coetzee provide answers and definitive interpretations of his own life and writings, Coetzee replied, for himself and for all his fictional characters: “Your questions again and again drive me into a position I do not want to occupy. (But what legitimacy has that ‘want’?) By accepting your implication, I would produce a master narrative for a set of texts that claim to deny all master narratives.”[17] By evading such questions, both the author and Michael K elude the life of “a budgie or a white mouse or a monkey” in the cage of someone else’s master narrative.


[1] J. M. Coetzee, Life & Times of Michael K (London: Penguin, 1983) 181. All references to Life & Times of Michael K are to this edition and are cited parenthetically in the text following the abbreviation L.
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[2] Michael Oakeshott, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” Rationalism in Politics and other Essays (Indianapolis, IN: LibertyPress, 1991) 488–541.
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[3] Richard Auernheimer, Gemeinschaft und Gespräch: Stefano Guazzos Begriff der ‘Conversatione Civile’ (Munich: Fink, 1973).
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[4] John Leon Lievsay, Stefano Guazzo and the English Renaissance, 1575–1675 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1961).
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[5] Dieter A. Berger, Die Konversationskunst in England, 1660–1740: Ein Sprechphänomen und seine literarische Gestaltung (Munich: Fink, 1978).
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[6] Oakeshott 490.
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[7] Aaron Fogel, Coercion to Speak: Conrad’s Poetics of Dialogue (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985) 6.
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[8] Barbara J. Eckstein, The Language of Fiction in a World of Pain: Reading Politics as Paradox (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990) 98.
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[9] Dick Penner, Countries of the Mind: The Fiction of J. M. Coetzee (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989) 110.
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[10] Michael Marais, “Languages of Power: A Story of Reading Coetzee’s Michael K / Michael K,” English in Africa 16.2 (1989): 41.
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[11] Marais 42.
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[12] Marais 45.
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[13] Cf. Martin Heidegger, “Die Frage nach der Technik,” Vorträge und Aufsätze I (Pfullingen: Neske, 1954) 5–36.
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[14] D. J. Enright, “The thing itself,” review of Life and Times of Michael K,” Times Literary Supplement, 30 September 1983, 1035.
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[15] Nadine Gordimer, “The Idea of Gardening,” review of Life and Times of Michael K,” The New York Review of Books 26 (2 February 1984): 3 and 6; here 6.
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[16] J. M. Coetzee, “Zbigniew Herbert and the Figure of the Censor,” Salmagundi 88–89 (Fall 1990–Winter 1991): 161. Coetzee’s emphasis.
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[17] Tony Morphet, “Two Interviews with J. M. Coetzee, 1983 and 1987,” TriQuarterly 69 (Spring–Summer 1987): 464.
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