The Queer Use of Communal Women in Borges'
"El muerto" and "La intrusa"

Herbert J. Brant
Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Sex and women are two very problematic components in the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges: the absence of these two elements, which seems so casual and unremarkable, really highlights the strangeness of their exclusion. For example, scenes of sexual acts are almost totally lacking in Borgesian writing (Emma Zunz's sexual encounter with an anonymous sailor is the most notable exception) and even the most veiled suggestion of erotic activities is limited to only a very few stories. Similarly scarce,[1] too, are female characters who figure prominently in the narration and who seem to possess a independent personhood.[2] The fictional world created by Borges is a place where women, if they appear at all, seem to exist mainly as debased objects[3] for the purpose of providing men with an opportunity for sex and where such sexual activities, by means of a female body. Sex and women are used primarily as bargaining chips in the relationship between men, never for the traditional purposes of either procreation or pleasure. Sex in Borges' fiction, by means of an objectified female body,[4] is nothing more than a maneuver that gives definition and dynamism to the interaction between men.

In opposition to the traditional critical standpoint that male-male interaction in Borgesian fiction is merely homosocial and, therefore, purely nonsexual, a closer inspection of Borges' work reveals the clear but playfully veiled presence of homoerotic desire. My purpose here is to analyze two stories, "El muerto" and "La intrusa," to expose the way in which the homosocial element of Borges' fictional world slides across the continuum[5] towards the homosexual side when men in each story make use of a communal woman for the purpose of connecting physically and emotionally with another man. In these two stories, the erotic desire of the two men is plainly not directed towards a female, but rather towards each other, with the female as the intermediary focal point at/in which the two men may coincide. This type of sexual activity has the dual objective of fulfilling the societal mandate of "compulsory heterosexuality" when the males use the requisite female body for sexual purposes, while at the same time circumventing the proscription of male homosexual contact.[6] In other words, Borges has substituted an intervening female body between the men as a way to permit the men to connect physically without transgressing heteropatriarchal prohibitions. In this manner, Borges is able to give expression to a relationship between men that simultaneously attracted him and repulsed him.

In this study I explore the similarities, differences, and significance in the use of the shared woman in "El muerto" and "La intrusa" and I propose that, far from the traditional critical appraisal, voiced by Robert Lima, that "Borges has concerned himself with heterosexual relations to the exclusion of other types" (417),[7] sexual acts in Borges' fiction are not only homosocial, but also, in most cases, homosexual. Despite some rather substantial similarities between the two stories, "El muerto" and "La intrusa" provide two very different portrayals of the union of two men through the body of a woman. The setting for both stories, for example, is located outside urban society, that is, on the plains of the Río de la Plata basin. The time period for both stories is the 1890s. The male characters in both stories are known to be violent, severe, and willing to kill for their honor in stereotypical macho fashion. But aside from these parallels, the two stories have markedly different outcomes and purposes. In "El muerto," one man desires to coincide with another and through the use of a communal woman, the two men are connected in a way that creates a shift in authority, leading the second man to seek revenge on the first for his transgression of the male power dynamic. In "La intrusa," two brothers, through the use of a communal woman, suddenly come to understand how much they desire each other and once their passion is recognized, they preserve and reinforce it by disposing of the barrier between them, the woman who brought them together.

"El muerto," originally published in 1946 and later collected in the first edition of El Aleph (1949), is the story of a handsome young compadrito from Buenos Aires, Benjamín Otálora, who has killed a man and must leave the country. He heads for Uruguay with a letter of introduction for Azevedo Bandeira, a local caudillo. While searching for this Bandeira, he participates in a knife-fight and blocks a lethal blow intended for the man he discovers later to be Bandeira himself. Having earned Bandeira's trust and gratitude, Otálora joins his band of gaucho smugglers. Little by little, Otálora becomes more greedy and ambitious, taking more risks, making more decisions, and befriending Bandeira's body guard, Ulpiano Suárez, to whom he reveals his secret plan to take Bandeira's place as leader of the group. The plan is the result of his desire to possess Bandeira's most important symbols of power: his horse, his saddle, and his woman with the bright red hair. One day, after a skirmish with a rival band of Brazilians, Otálora is wounded and on that day, he rides Bandeira's horse back to the ranch, spills blood on the saddle, and sleeps with the woman. The end of the story occurs on New Year's Eve in 1894 when, after a day of feasting and drinking, at the stroke of Midnight, Bandeira summons his mistress and brutally forces her to kiss Otálora in front of all the men. As Suárez aims his pistol, Otálora realizes before he dies that he had been set up from the very beginning and that he had been permitted the pleasure of power and triumph because in the end, to Bandeira, he never was anything more than a soon-to-be dead man.

The usual critical stance regarding this story emphasizes the time-honored view that in this tale, as in similar stories such as "La muerte y la brújula," Borges is showing the reader the inherent foolishness of the human presumption that we are in control of our own destinies. Jaime Alazraki, for example, states that "El muerto" demonstrates a "tragic contrast between a man who believes himself to be the master and the maker of his fate and a text or divine plan in which his fortune has already been written" and that this contrast "parallels the problem of man with respect to the universe: The world is impenetrable, but the human mind never ceases to propose schemes" (19). George R. McMurray makes the case that the story symbolizes "the absurd condition of all men who strive for success without suspecting that fate--often a fate of their own making--is all the while plotting their destruction" (21). Gene H. Bell-Villada notes that the tale "is a thriller with parable overtones; it has the ring of those old moral fables in which the harshly sealed fate of one overly presumptuous individual seems to stand as a cautionary tale to us all" (182). E. D. Carter, too, indicates that the ending of the story is a clear illustration of the "punishment" that awaits the man who tries to create his own destiny by challenging a force greater than himself (14). Despite the striking consensus among most critics that Otálora is struck down because of his ambition and greed, the element that seems to go almost unperceived and uncommented is his desire to possess not only Bandeira's power and prestige, but also his person; Otálora wants to be Bandeira, to be in him and to see as he sees, to feel as he feels, to possess what he possesses. The desire for one man to be inside another man, to coincide with him, to possess him, is undeniably homoerotic.

The two central characters of the story are, as McMurray has noted, "antithetical doubles" (20): Otálora is a strapping young lad ("mocetón") of Basque descent with light coloring, while the older Bandeira "da, aunque fornido, la injustificable impresión de ser contrahecho" and whose mixed ancestry of Portuguese Jew, African, and Native American underscores his darkly colored patchwork appearance (Aleph 42).[8] Common between the two, however, a link that unites them, is the remarkably significant Borgesian facial scar. As I have shown elsewhere,[9] the visible scar in Borges has the value of marking a man for all the world to see as one who is brave and manly on the outside, but whose macho exterior is merely a mask disguising a deceitful and, therefore, feminine interior. In other words, a man whose homosocial character has transgressed the line of homosexual desire (a "man's man" who has become "interested in men"), is permanently branded by an object (a knife or sword) that symbolizes what he most desires (the phallus). Western cultural norms dictate that those men who violate heteropatriarchal traditions by loving other men must be of inferior moral status and this condition is given tangible form: as Cirlot explains, "[i]mperfecciones morales, sufrimientos ([[questiondown]]son lo mismo?) son, pues, simbolizados por heridas y por cicatrices de hierro y fuego" (127; emphasis added).

Otálora's desire for Bandeira is signaled from the very beginning of their association by the young man's intense need for visual contact; he yearns to see the man he desires and to be seen and recognized by him. For example, shortly after becoming a part of Bandeira's group, during his gaucho apprenticeship, the narrator mentions that Otálora is only able to see Bandeira once, but that "lo tiene muy presente." To add to the older man's desireability, Otálora is reminded by the others that Bandeira is the master and model ("ante cualquier hombrada, los gauchos dicen que Bandeira lo hace mejor") and Bandeira becomes, for Otálora, an absent but urgently coveted object of desire. Otálora, in an attempt to get Bandeira to take special notice of him, to make Bandeira see him, wounds one of his gaucho compañeros in a fight and takes his place on a smuggling mission so that his cunning and daring will be noted by Bandeira. Otálora hopes that Bandeira will suddenly realize that "yo valgo más que todos sus orientales juntos" (Aleph 45; original emphasis). Once he returns to the Big House, the narrator again notes that "pasan los días y Otálora no ha visto a Bandeira" (Aleph 45). Otálora's desire for contact with Bandeira through a male-male gaze is an early indication of his longing to connect with the man he wishes to replace.

As Otálora's hunger for Bandeira grows, he begins to crave Bandeira's many different possessions so that he can satisfy his desire through a metonymic ownership of things contiguous to Bandeira. When Otálora first sees Bandeira's bedroom, the first objects that he notices are highly symbolic: "hay una larga mesa con un resplandeciente desorden de taleros, de arreadores, de cintos, de armas de fuego y de armas blancas" (Aleph 46). These objects are traditionally linked to both masculine sexuality and the dominance/domination and violent power of masculine gender. Otálora's interest in and appetite for these specifically masculine attributes of Bandeira is highlighted when the narrator describes the objects on the table with the adjective "resplandeciente" while in contrast, when another of Bandeira's "objects," his mistress, enters the room barefoot and bare-breasted, Otálora observes her indirectly (as a reflection in a mirror) with only "fría curiosidad" (Aleph 46).

Otálora's desire for Bandeira's prized possessions is a clear example of René Girard's conceptualization of "triangular desire." Sharon Magnarelli, in her study of women in Borges' fiction, summarizes Girard's thesis, stating that "desire is dependent upon a triangular relationship: the object of desire (O) is desirable to one individual (A) to the extent that it is desired by another (B)." She notes, further, that "the object of desire (O) is an empty receptacle needing to be filled with what is projected upon it by the subjects of that desire (A and/or B)" (143). Applying this model of triangular desire to the fiction of Borges, Magnarelli finds that his female characters often serve the function of desired objects in a triangle and it is through these objects that sexual intercourse becomes "the gesture which links all men..." (143).

Magnarelli indicates that the result of this triangular relationship, so abundant in Borges' fiction, is what has usually been called simply "rivalry." But this rivalry in Borges is never the consequence of a powerful tie between a man and a woman, but rather between two men. Sedgwick, in applying Girard's theory to English literature, extends Girard's theory and finds that the rivalry between two men that is expressed through desire for the same woman is a bond "as intense and potent as the bond that links either of the rivals to the beloved." In fact, "the bond between rivals in an erotic triangle [is] even stronger, more heavily determinant of actions and choices, than anything in the bond between either of the lovers and the beloved" (21). In Borges, as we will see, the action that is determined in response to the rivalry of triangular desire is always violent.[10]

In "El muerto," Otálora fervently desires to take possession of several different prized objects belonging to Bandeira: his horse with its saddle and blanket, and the red-headed woman. Otálora wants them with so much intensity precisely because Bandeira has invested so much desire in them, or as Magnarelli puts it, "the objects are coveted because the prestige of Bandeira has been projected on them; they have no intrinsic value" (144). Indeed, Otálora does not desire the horse for its equine qualities, nor does he desire the mistress for her feminine qualities.[11] And although they may not possess an intrinsic value, they do have a functional one. Unlike other objects that symbolize Bandeira's power,[12] the saddle on the horse and the woman are two things on/in which the two men can physically connect: when Otálora mounts first the horse, and then later mounts the woman, he is, in effect, mounting Bandeira himself.

Once he achieves his objective and comes into possession of all of Bandeira's most valued objects, Otálora enjoys his triumph at a New Year's Eve celebration. Otálora has fulfilled his desire to coincide with Bandeira, to connect with him indirectly through the body of the red-headed woman and although he does not know it yet, he must now die. Otálora's death is required, not simply because he was too ambitious and too greedy and tried to take command of things that he had no right to control, but because he has dared to place himself in the position of power in the "unimaginable contact"[13] that would turn Bandeira into the so-called "passive" partner in male-male sexual intercourse. As Borges himself made clear in his 1931 essay "Nuestras imposibilidades," among the Buenos Aires gangsters and hoodlums there is no shame for the "active" partner in "sodomy,"[14] "porque lo embromó al compañero" (Discusión 16-17) while it is only the "passive" partner who suffers dishonor and condemnation. The affront that Bandeira must avenge is his "getting screwed" by Otálora, the fact that he finds himself in the shameful and feminized position of receptor in the contact between them.[15]

Bandeira's revenge takes place precisely when Otálora's pleasure and excitement are at its peak. In fact, the narrator's description gives the clear impression that Otálora has a metaphorical erection, symbolizing his active, inserter role: "Otálora, borracho, erige exultación sobre exultación, júbilo sobre júbilo; esa torre de vértigo es un símbolo de su irresistible destino" (Aleph 49; emphasis added). As long as Otálora is alive, wielding his power as macho inserter, Bandeira cannot recover his role as the regional strongman. The narrator is careful to note that when Bandeira speaks at the end of the story, he speaks "con una voz que se afemina y se arrastra" (Aleph 50; emphasis added). Weakened by the feminized position in which Otálora has put him, Bandeira himself cannot wreak his vengeance on Otálora; that job is left to Suárez who symbolically and violently penetrates Otálora with a gunshot and consequently destroys the rival that had appropriated Bandeira's phallic power.[16]

The story, "La intrusa," offers quite a different outcome from that of "El muerto." In this story, rather than the death of a man who dares to usurp male sexual power from another man by means of a communal woman, in "La instrusa" it is the communal woman who must die in order to cement the bonds of desire between two men. "La intrusa" was first printed in the third edition of El Aleph (1966) and was later included in the collection, El informe de Brodie (1970). It is the story told of two brothers, Cristián and Eduardo Nilsen, who were infamous for both their rough and brutal ways as well as their unusual closeness. According to the legend, the incidents occur in the 1890s when the elder brother, Cristián, brings home a prostitute named Juliana Burgos. When Eduardo "falls in love" with her, too, rather than starting a terrible fight, Cristián tells him to "use" her if he likes. Soon, their joint use of Juliana gives rise to an emotional tension between the two brothers and in order to resolve the conflict, Cristián decides to sell Juliana to a brothel outside of town and share the money with his brother. Unfortunately, their need to share her continues as they both make trips to see her at the bordello. Cristián decides to buy Juliana back and take her home again. But the jealousy between the two brothers becomes worse. Finally, on a Sunday, Cristián tells Eduardo that they must take a trip to sell some "skins." When they arrive at a deserted field, Cristián confesses that he has killed Juliana and put an end to their disharmony. The brothers embrace, almost crying, linked even more closely by this "sacrifice."

This story, unlike the majority of Borges' tales, has occasioned quite widely divergent views among critics with respect to its content and artistry. Some critics have found the story's content to be quite troubling, even alarming, and that the narration seems to signal a clear break with Borges' earlier, that is, more accomplished style. For example, Bell-Villada, with particularly forceful condemnation, finds that "[i]t seems almost inconceivable that the same man who created `Emma Zunz' could also have written `The Intruder,' a disturbing yarn of jealousy and frontier violence that implicitly celebrates a male companionship strengthened by misogyny" (188). Bell-Villada continues to berate the work, concluding that despite its "polished prose," the story is shallow and sketchy and that "[i]t goes without saying that the story's gratuitous violence against a female can only strike negative chords at this moment in history" (189). Martin Stabb also remarks that "[a] superficial reading of this piece might suggest that it was the work of another writer, certainly not the Borges of Ficciones and The Aleph. [...] ...the story itself--revolving around crudeness, sex, and prostitution--was hardly reminiscent of the Borges of earlier years" (86). Stabb, however, does go on to link this story with Borges' "canonical" texts, especially through thematic content. Gary Keller and Karen Van Hooft, too, argue that there is a continuity between Borges' earlier and later production but that this story incorporates significant innovations in Borgesian narrative, particularly the development of plot as depending less on "the familiar devices of magic, the exotic, or game-playing" and more "on a psychologically authentic succession of grave actions and enhanced self- and other-awareness" (300).

But most critics do seem to agree on one thing: the theme of friendship/fraternity as an ultimate goal over heterosexual love/sex. McMurray (143) views this theme as a result of Borges' fascination for the cult of "machismo" and this idea is echoed by Bell-Villada who states that "[t]he tie stressed here, of course, is of a rather archaic sort, the macho bonds between men in the wilderness, a relationship of the kind one might encounter at all male clubs, on athletic teams, or in men's-magazine stories about deer hunting" (189). Lima (and repeated in Carter), however, makes the case that Borges' personal fear and loathing of sex and sexuality are the basis of the theme.[17] Lima concludes that in killing the woman, Cristián "has confronted the erotic `demon' in himself and executed it. He has opted for the fraternal rather than for the sexual bond" and this is due to "Borges' view that coition, because of its appeal to man's lower nature, can function only as a means to an end. In this instance, that end is the reaffirmation and strengthening of fraternal ties" (415).

The question in this story of fraternal love that has crossed over on the homosocial-homosexual continuum to the homosexual side has been an issue since the story first appeared. For some critics, the homosexual implications of the Nilsen brothers' relationship can be neutralized by Borges' use of a female intermediary, while for others, she is the catalyst to a more physical bonding between the brothers. Lima's conclusion above, however, indicates that there are those that cannot conceive of the possibility that fraternal bonds and sexual bonds can coincide, that brothers can also be lovers. And it is important to note that among those who cannot imagine brothers as sexual partners is the author himself.[18] In fact, according to Emir Rodríguez Monegal and Alastair Reid, the tale is based on a real incident that Borges found necessary to modify: the "chief alteration was to make the protagonists brothers instead of close friends, to avoid any homosexual connotations. (Perhaps unwillingly, he added incest)" (361). Canto, too, states that when she discussed the story with Borges, "[l]e dije que el cuento me parecía básicamente homosexual. Creí que esto--él se alarmaba bastante de cualquier alusión en este sentido--iba a impresionarle. [...] Para él no había ninguna situación homosexual en el cuento. Continuó hablándome de la relación entre los dos hermanos, de la bravura de este tipo de hombres, etc." (230).[19]

In spite of Borges' objections and his attempts simultaneously to expose and disguise the nature of the relationship between the brothers, I have no doubt that there is a clear homosexual content in the story. For example, the opening epigraph, indicated only by the chapter and verse designation "2 Reyes, I, 26," seems to announce the theme of fraternal love. But, as Balderston points out, this is one of Borges' clever deceptions to express and, at the same time, suppress the homosexual context he would establish for the story. The biblical reference that Borges gives is, as Woscoboinik has mentioned, a "picardía" that bashfully disguises its own content (129). Balderston explains that "[t]he first chapter of the second book of Kings does not have a twenty-sixth verse, but the second book of Samuel, sometimes also known as the second book of Kings, contains the most famous of all declarations of homosexual love: `I am distressed for thee, my brother, Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me; thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women'" (35). Once the reader has deciphered the reference and found the actual passage, it becomes clear that the epigraph sets up the story as one that will convey the power of a man's passion for another man, a love that will surpass the love of a woman.

Several details indicate that the Nilsen brothers are not like the other men of the region. First of all, their peculiar nature makes them unusually removed and antisocial: no one dares intrude on their privacy and they never let people into their house because the brothers "defendían su soledad" (Brodie 18). Furthermore, they are of an uncertain ethnic lineage which makes them appear physically different: "[s]é que eran altos, de melena rojiza. Dinamarca o Irlanda, de las que nunca oirían hablar, andaban por la sangre de esos dos criollos" (Brodie 18); "[f]ísicamente diferían del compadraje que dio su apodo forajido a la Costa Brava" (Brodie 19). The narrator concludes that it is this physical difference, as well as "lo que ignoramos, ayuda a comprender lo unidos que fueron. Malquistarse con uno era contar con dos enemigos" (Brodie 19; emphasis added). What makes them distant, what makes them so odd, but above all, what makes them so close, is due to something we do not and cannot know. Given the context of the rest of the story, however, the narrator's feigned ignorance appears to be a clear case of not being able to name explicitly the "peccatum illud horribile, inter christianos non nominandum," that is, homosexuality, the love/sin that dare not speak its name.

It is significant that immediately following the acknowledgment that the narrator is unaware of what causes the two men to be so attached to each other, he mentions their sexual customs: it is known that their "episodios amorosos" have only ever been sexual encounters with prostitutes. It is clear that the brothers have never courted a woman with whom they could consider maintaining a long-term relationship or with whom they could satisfy the heteropatriarchal dictate of marriage. So when Cristián brings the prostitute Juliana Burgos home to live with them, his intention is not to form a heterosexual bond, but rather to acquire a live-in maid ("[e]s verdad que ganaba así una sirvienta"), and more importantly, to be able to show her off as his companion when he goes out in public ("la lucía en las fiestas") (Brodie 19). This second use of Juliana as a visible heterosexual partner--a "beard"--is quite necessary to deflect the already circulating accusations of homoerotic desire between the brothers as the narrator suggests with a modest coded phrase, "la rivalidad latente de los hermanos" (Brodie 20; my emphasis).

The most valuable use of Juliana, however, is her position as a sexual intermediary between the brothers. She is the third point of the love triangle and as such, "[s]he... has no intrinsic value, her value is the result of the mediator's, the other's prestige. Cristián desires her because Eduardo does and viceversa" (Magnarelli 144). So as the brothers share her, connecting man-to-man through her body, Juliana loses any identity as a human being and becomes a mere sexual apparatus that permits the two men to have intimate physical relations with each other without actually engaging in male-male sexual intercourse. The understanding of the true nature of their relationship emerges when, as Keller and Van Hooft demonstrate, "Juliana comes to serve as a catalyst and a foil for a more profound intrusion--the emergence of a conscious awareness of fraternal love, an awareness which is intolerable to the brothers" (305). This frightening knowledge, as Balderston points out, is "what Sedgwick and others have called `homosexual panic'" (35), the startling realization that a man's relationship to another man could be construed as homoerotic and must, therefore, reveal (unconscious) homosexual desire.

Their mutual desire ("aquel monstruoso amor" Brodie 22; my emphasis), however, becomes so overwhelming that the brothers must find a release from the tension it causes. After a long discussion, the two men decide to sell Juliana to a brothel and in that way they may succeed in eliminating the instrument that makes their physical love possible and in calming their own homophobic feelings of guilt. This response does not solve the problem. Their need to connect through her grows more powerful than their fear of acknowledging their homosexual passion for each other. As a result, the brothers are forced to buy her back after they visit her repeatedly in an attempt to recreate the erotic structure that once united them. From an initial state of homophobic panic, the two brothers come to accept their desire for each other and their need to bond in a more complete manner. The true union of the two brothers, however, will require the elimination of Juliana.

Despite the seeming inevitability of the conclusion of the story, the tragic murder of Juliana Burgos[20] poses serious difficulties in the interpretation of the meaning of the relationship between the brothers and to the communal woman that brings them together. For me, the death of Juliana at the hands of the Nilsen brothers is not a Christ-like sacrifice "to atone for their `sin' of love," as McMurray would have it (144), nor is it a sacrifice of their despised homosexuality and the destruction of their inner femininity, as Magnarelli concludes (148). These and other interpretations[21] fail to take into account the strength of the passion between the two brothers, which, as the epigraph reminds us, "passes the love of women." Cristián kills Juliana, not because he hates this woman or women in general, but rather because as long as Juliana exists as an intermediary, an impediment that keeps the brothers from realizing fully their homoerotic desire, the two men will never be able to connect to each other directly. The two need to move beyond a relationship with a communal woman as surrogate to a relationship with their true object of desire. In order to accomplish this, they remove the obstacle that keeps them apart and through this "sacrifice," they are joined permanently in a more intimate way. Borges' fictional world is an essentially and unquestionably homosocial space. In the vast majority of his stories, where there is a total absence of female characters or where they are merely decorative, the homosociality in the texts only hints at a possible queer sexuality between the male characters. But as the two stories "El muerto" and "La intrusa" show, the presence of a female deployed as a structural element of the plot has the paradoxical effect of highlighting and underscoring the sexual nature of the relationships among males. Were it not for the inclusion of the red-headed woman in "El muerto," Otálora's scheme to unite with Bandeira and rob him of his male sexual power could never have taken place. Unlike the other cherished objects such as the horse and saddle which merely suggest an undercurrent of sexuality, Bandeira's woman provides a site at which the sexual aspect of Otálora's desire can be given more complete expression. Likewise, the presence of Juliana Burgos in "La intrusa" furnishes the Nilsen brothers with a physical link through which they can fulfill their heretofore unacknowledged and growing passion for each other. Their fame in the community for being both strange and unusually intimate implies from the very beginning that all they need is a catalyst to change their homosocial relationship into a homosexual one. It is Juliana, in her role as communal sexual body, that provides the transformative element. In the end, the use of communal women in these stories serves to provide only the appearance of fulfilling the mandates of "compulsory heterosexuality," while underneath this façade of sex between men and women it becomes quite plain that something very queer is going on.


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