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130 of 139 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Events so bizarre and unbelievable could only be fact
I overheard Harris being interviewed on Radio 4, talking about this 'novel' - except to call it a novel implies that it must be fiction. As Harris and the interviewer concurred, if someone invented the Dreyfus affair as a fiction, the writer would be castigated for having stretched credulity too far.

In fact, as Harris points out, all this is documented, and...
Published 11 months ago by Lady Fancifull

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A slow read
This was very slow going. While the research is excellent, the narrative bogs down at times. The book sets forth a good history lesson, however.
Published 4 months ago by AEM

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130 of 139 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Events so bizarre and unbelievable could only be fact, October 9, 2013
I overheard Harris being interviewed on Radio 4, talking about this 'novel' - except to call it a novel implies that it must be fiction. As Harris and the interviewer concurred, if someone invented the Dreyfus affair as a fiction, the writer would be castigated for having stretched credulity too far.

In fact, as Harris points out, all this is documented, and researched, and is a deeply shameful part of France's history. Except that what is even more worrying and shameful is that large scale cover-ups, the concept of obeying orders without question, systems protecting their own despite betraying principles of justice, and inherent racism are not endemic flaws peculiar to late nineteenth and early twentieth century France

The infamous Dreyfus affair involved a Jewish army officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who was convicted of spying for Germany, in 1895. There was certainly a spy within the French army, a man who was violent, untrustworthy, and with gambling debts and a mistress as well as a wife to support. But that man was not Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus was a loyal and conscientious, if not particularly likeable, officer. The question which must be asked is - was Dreyfus not particularly likeable, or was he not particularly likeable because he was Jewish - anti-Semitism was deeply entrenched in society. A culture of what we have learned to define as Institutional Racism was certainly present - but not just within Institutions

Dreyfus was convicted because as a Jew he was the automatic one to suspect, even though, right from the start, the evidence was circumstantial, and largely turning on evidence from a graphologist. However, as the expert graphologists disagreed as to whether writing was Dreyfus's or not, investigations into Dreyfus being the spy quickly became slewed to create and falsify the evidence with the sole aim to prove the Jew's guilt, rather than continue to investigate who the spy really was. Jewish, therefore guilty.

Dreyfus was sent to Devil's Island, and was the only prisoner there, kept in appalling conditions of barbaric inhumanity.

An army officer, who had in part been involved in the initial capture and prosecution of Dreyfus, Georges Picquart, had been promoted to head of the army intelligence unit. Originally believing in Dreyfus' guilt, he ended up uncovering the truth, and that the conviction of Dreyfus had been a sham. However, this is only the beginning of the bizarre events which transpired. On laying his suspicions and discoveries about the real spy, in front of superiors, ranks closed against Picquart. An extremely loyal Frenchman and army officer, who also had absorbed the anti-Semitism of his society, Picquart still felt justice was the most important factor, above loyalty to the organisation or the country. In fact, how could loyalty to injustice serve anyone's interest?

In a truth is much stranger than fiction development, the inability of the army, the judiciary and the politicians to admit they had made a huge mistake in convicting Dreyfus, led to a bizarre investigation whereby anyone involved in trying to uncover the truth of the affair, - including Picquart himself, became the subject of allegations of treason. In refusing at an early stage to admit a wrong conviction, the cover-up of the cover-up got deeper, weirder and more criminally psychotic.

Harris presents the whole history of this shocking event, and his novelist's sense fleshes out what might otherwise be incredibly complicated transcipts.

Although I did know about the Dreyfus affair, mainly because of the involvement of the French realist novelist Emile Zola in publicising the infamy of the State machinery, with his famous J'Accuse letter in L'Aurore on the 13th January 1898, I did not appreciate the full depth and complexity of this most infamous, deliberately constructed miscarriage of justice.

I sacrificed a night's sleep to this book, truly unable to put it down.
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68 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb historical dramatic action novel, October 13, 2013
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To call this a spy thriller is to diminish its is of course a spy thriller and a fascinating detective story but it is much more than that.I believe that it is Harris best and one of the few outstanding dramatic action historical novels of all times
It is the narrative of the Grand Drama,political,military and human that took place in France between the late 19th and the early 20th Centuries,the Dreyfus affair.
All main characters of the novel are real historical persons.The wrongly accused as a German spy Major Dreyfus a French Officer and an Alsatian Jew, a model of stoicism,a man of professional and family values,portrayed superbly by the Author as History delivered him to posterity,a man of schoolmasterish appearance and enormous inner strength who suffered his own Calvary because of the prejudice that haunts his Race, before his exoneration .
The principal character, Colonel Picquart,an Alsatian himself narrates the story in the first person.He is the new Head of the Statistical Section which is the front for the French Army's counterespionage team.He knew the Dreyfus affair from the beginning but did not initially challenged it.He is the subject of a superbly drawn psychological and physical portrait by the Author,he is so vividly described by Harris as he really was that one feels that knows him.
Picquart ,while no Saint and with the limitations of his profession and his social class,is a man of integrity,intelligence and dogged determination as well as a crafty bureaucratic fighter that knows the system well.
The rest of the characters are extremely well described and formed and a number of different historical persons that make Cameo appearances build an excellent understanding for the Reader about the French Society of those times with its deep political divisions and prejudices and the French Army's Trauma from its defeat by the Germans 25 years before.
The story is essentially the struggle for the truth to come out fighting against the Establishment and an Administration that will go a long way to cover its crime of condemning an innocent man for reasons of politics and prejudices
The Author,a master of elegant descriptive prose,with a magnificent economy of style revives the era ,it's characters and the surrounding atmosphere,respecting the historical truth but embellishing it with rich talented descriptions of situations,actors,ideas and feelings so that the part of the plot that is already known is only the skeleton of the harmoniously fleshed out story.
The story can be read as a thriller or as a novel of high literary value because it is both.I did not have a single dull moment reading it.
It is strongly recommended for both the casual and the intellectual reader,there is intrigue,action, thrills and quality to satisfy all.
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68 of 74 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping historical thriller, September 27, 2013
I don't often read historical books, preferring a contemporary setting, but I always make an exception for Robert Harris. It is some time since I have read one of his books so when I was offered the chance of an advance reader copy I accepted gratefully. Actually that is putting it mildly. I leapt at the chance.

This book is set in France at the turn of the 20th century. It is based on a true story where Alfred Dreyfuss, an officer in the French army is accused, tried and found guilty of being a spy. Some years later Georges Picquart, an officer involved in the case, finds evidence that this may not be the case. This simple premise hides a book which is more than absorbing.

Harris writing has the ability to draw you into the story and transport you to the places of which he is speaking. I could hear the stomping of the horses feet, smell 19th Century Paris in the summer and felt like I was best friends with the characters. The characters are exquisitely drawn and each, whether bad or good, felt like real people. It was obvious a lot of work had gone into the research for this book.

Throughout the book Harris had me in the palm of his hand. The storyline is enthralling and urged me to keep reading. The twists and turns had me on a roller coaster ride of emotions. I genuinely cared about all of the characters and what happened to them. That was the case for all the characters even if I was urging them to get their just deserts. These are the signs of a good book and this one is more than good, it is outstanding. It is some time since I have read a book which absorbed me so completely. This is a definite highly recommended.

I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in return for a fair and honest review. My review is based on my reading, and enjoyment, of the book.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A new take on an old story, January 16, 2014
I thought this was a cleverly written book which really brings to life the Dreyfus Affair and paints a clearer picture of the protagonists which no factual chtrnological biography can. I learnt no new facts because I was well aware of the story but I was more able to empathise with the various characters and appreciate the real depths to which the honourable French Army had sunk.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars J'Accuse, January 15, 2014
This review is from: An Officer and a Spy: A novel (Hardcover)
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Robert Harris has specialized in political thrillers set in carefully researched historical contexts. Sometimes they are counterfactual, such as his brilliant FATHERLAND. Sometimes they graft a fictional story onto a matrix of documented truth, as in ENIGMA. But never, I think, has he ventured before into territory so factual in its detail, and for which so much is documented, as is the Dreyfus Affair, which galvanized France between 1894 and 1906. It would have been perfectly possible, I believe, for the publishers to have issued this book as imaginative non-fiction, in which only the characters' thoughts and spoken lines were invented by the author. But it reads, at least for the first two-thirds of its length, as a gripping thriller worthy of Frederick Forsyth, or indeed of Harris himself. That two such different genres are in fact perfectly compatible is high proof of the author's skill.

I began the book with scant knowledge of the Dreyfus Affair, and if other readers come to it with similar ignorance of its detail, I urge them to hold off from checking on the Internet until later. I knew, for example, that Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew, was found guilty of giving military secrets to the Germans in 1894, stripped of his rank, and condemned to solitary confinement on the tropical Devil's Island. I knew that the entire case rested upon flimsy evidence and irregular legal procedures, riding on a wave of national anti-Semitism. And I knew that the slow growth of dissent reached a tipping point in 1898 with Emile Zola's open letter to the French President, headed "J'Accuse."

I assumed as I was reading that all the major figures in the book would be based upon the real army officers who brought the case against Dreyfus and later defended it in rearguard action. But I thought it was a brilliant stroke of Harris's to invent a fictional character to work in among the real figures, but with a freedom of action only available to the novelist. This is Major Marie-Georges Picquart, who is deputized to attend the Dreyfus court martial as the eyes and ears of the Minister of War, as the result of which service he is promoted to head the Intellgence section of the General Staff, the youngest colonel in the French army. In this new position, he comes across evidence that makes him doubt his earlier conviction and soon has him playing spy himself, in secret meetings and stakeouts all over Paris. Add in a dash of clandestine romance (with two different high-placed women), and you have a spy of fiction who, if not James Bond, could at least have been his great-uncle.

I could hardly believe it when I discovered that Picquart was also an historical figure, so completely has Harris filled out not only his adventures, but his personal feelings and especially his moral dilemma: how to balance his love for the army and duty to his superiors against the dictates of his conscience. This is exactly what a novelist should be doing, and Harris handles it superbly. His character acts as though driven by inner forces, rather than running along the preordained rails of the historical record. 

But there inevitably comes a time when no amount of derring-do can save the day by itself, and the outcome is determined by the slow grinding of the wheels of political expediency and legal procedure. The last 100 pages of the book are less exciting than the first 300, but they are true to the public record and fascinating in their own right. Indeed, I regard it as a strength that Harris never takes short cuts or polarizes the issues. He does not disguise the fact, for instance, that Picquart was apparently not personally well-disposed to Jews, or that Dreyfus was not an especially likable individual; the moral issues have even greater force taking place within a general climate of anti-Semitism, rather than a grand battle between tolerance and bigotry. Picquart and all the major characters in this excellent novel are REAL -- not because they really existed, but because a talented author made them so.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An honourable man, December 17, 2013
Ralph Blumenau (London United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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Col. Georges Picquart was a key figure in the Dreyfus case, and this is his fictional first person account, written throughout in the present tense, of his involvement in it. Like all Robert Harris' earlier historical novels, it is based on meticulous research, and I assume that all the basic elements are correct. He does, at the end of the book, acknowledge "the various sleights of hand in narrative ... invariably required to turn fact into fiction". It always bothers me when it is not clear what is fact and what is fiction, but I have found nothing that conflicts with my fairly detailed knowledge, though it is nothing like as extensive as his. (One tiny detail: Harris will be familiar with the well-known artist's impression of Dreyfus' degradation, which shows Dreyfus' sword being broken across the thigh of an officer; so when in this book the officer breaks the sword by resting its tip on the ground and then stamping on the angled weapon, he presumably found in his researches that the illustration had taken a liberty with the facts.) Harris conjures up personalities of his immense cast with superb clarity, and the Dramatis Personae at the beginning will be a great help in what is a very complex story. He is good on describing locations and has a detailed knowledge of the topography of Paris, and apparently even of the appearance of rooms within government departments. The book reads like a page-turner of a thriller (except that I did get lost during the account of the Zola trial).

In broadest outline: Picquart, having minuted Captain Alfred Dreyfus' first court-martial in 1894, was initially convinced of his treason, but two years later, soon after he had become Chief of Intelligence, he came to the conclusion that there had been a miscarriage of justice and that the real traitor was Major Esterhazy. When he raised his concerns with the war minister and with his superiors in the army, he was ordered to be silent about it: none of them wanted the Dreyfus case to be reopened for various reasons, including the dishonour they thought would befall the army for the miscarriage of justice. Picquart's second-in-command, Major Henry, caused documents to be forged that would further incriminate Dreyfus. Picquart was posted to Tunisia and Henry was appointed in his place. But Picquart's story was leaked; the Affaire became a story which bitterly divided French public opinion, even long after Dreyfus received a presidential pardon in 1899: he was not exonerated until 1906, when he was restored to the army with the rank of Major. And after the many ordeals narrated in this novel, Picquart would himself be vindicated, though also not reinstated in the Army (with the rank of Brigadier-General) until 1906. The events between 1899 and 1906 are briefly covered in an Epilogue.

There was one very brief reference early in the book in which Picquart mentions that he "does not like Jews particularly". When he uses the phrase "a regular Jew", he is not being complimentary. Near the end, he declines to receive a thank-you visit from Dreyfus, saying "I am not the sort of man who finds it easy to be thanked". After Picquart had been made Minister of War by Clemenceau in 1908, Dreyfus visited him with the request that he be given the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, which he should have reached as a matter of course if he had not lost those years out of the army. Picquart refused the request: it would further antagonize the military of which he was now in charge. The Dreyfusards explained these things by labelling Picquart "energetically antisemitic." All this is recounted by Picquart in this novel.

Other books that I have read do state that Picquart shared the antisemitism that was rife among his other Alsatian fellow-officers; that he took up the case because he was disturbed that a traitor was still at large in the Army, the exposure of whom would involve clearing Dreyfus; that even though he had given evidence on Dreyfus' behalf in the second court-martial, he refused any personal relations or even civilities with either Alfred Dreyfus or his brother Matthieu. (In the novel he shakes hands with Mathieu on at least two occasions). Maybe Harris has evidence to show that my sources were taken in by a Dreyfusard slander; but even if Picquart was in fact antisemitic, he was also, unlike his superiors, an honest and honourable man.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A far better than average historical novel, January 12, 2014
This review is from: An Officer and a Spy: A novel (Hardcover)
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If you prefer your history straight up you're probably skeptical of historical fiction. I find most such novels cluttered with plot devices, counterfactual events, and generally less entertaining to read than a good history book. Robert Harris's, "An Officer and a Spy", is a conspicuous exception to my generalization.

While necessarily a work of imagination about the famous scandal which belatedly unfolded after a French military court convicted Captain Dreyfus of espionage on behalf of Germany, it sticks closely to the known facts, and more than rivals the sheer readability of Jean-Denis Bredin's page turner history, "The Affair - The Case of Alfred Dreyfus". Once opened, Harris's
book rebuffed all my attempts to put it down unfinished.

The insider's tour follows the iron-willed Colonel Marie-Charles Picquart from his appointment as spymaster (in the army's clandestine "Bureau of Statistics") through his casual discovery of the legal fraud which had sent Dreyfus to Devil's Island for life in solitary confinement. You feel his mounting disgust as he finds his superiors are not only determined to keep it hidden, but
even regard his discovery of the real traitor a matter which must be suppressed lest the prior conviction of "that Jew" be reversed and thus stain the army's sacred "honor". He recalls the generals' relentless pressure to preserve the cover-up, their threats, and his abrupt transfer to an outpost in the Sahara, his assignment to undertake a potentially fatal mission in the desert.

It is an extraordinary story--and it actually happened. It is no less dramatic in its telling for absence of plot embroidery with the usual thriller events of sudden violence, and cliffhanger scenes. The narrative drama escalates with his arrest, imprisonment, court martial, his expulsion from the army, his second career as a witness in legal proceedings when the "affair" has exploded
into headlines which divide the nation. Eventually the upheaval shifts, his career restored and in a real triumph of justice, he is promoted first to general, then to Minister of War.

The long years the scandal endured aren't all treated equally as in Bredin's history. The shifting political tides that followed in the wake of the two "revisions" (Dreyfus's protracted retrials) are a compressed epilogue told in flashback near the end of the novel after Picquart's personal drama has expired. He played little part in them (beyond assuming the top post of the general who fired him) so the novel necessarily gives somewhat short shrift to virulence of the anti-semitism that exploded with the scandal and no mention is made of the strong role of the church in stoking it.

But it's more than one man story. Scandals this big generate enormous casts of characters, and this one's list rivals Watergate. Blending so many complex and headstrong people, and so many bizarre events smoothly into the context of fin du siècle France in just 425 pages is a sure proof of Mr. Harris's mastery. I'd read several of his novels and liked them, but this one may prove a
milestone for the genre of historical fiction.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History Brought to Life, March 11, 2014
This review is from: An Officer and a Spy: A novel (Hardcover)
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Historical fiction is not really my genre. I tend to only read it when I find it listed under Mystery/Crime/Suspense. And I am so glad I found it there.

Somewhere in my education I knew of the Dreyfus Affair, but the remembered details were foggy, lost in the mists of history. Robert Harris brings history to life with "An Officer and a Spy."

Set at the turn of the century, in beautiful Paris, the sordid piece of history is told from the point of view of George Picquart, who was an officer involved in the trial and a witness at Dreyfus' degradation, in which his stripes, ribbons, and medals were stripped off his uniform. (Yes, they really did that.) Then Dreyfus is sent to Devil's Island, where he is allowed to speak to no one, and really, there are scant few with whom he could speak. It was a horrible exile.

Picquart is promoted to as the new Head of the Statistical Section, which is the army's counter-espionage unit. It is not a position to which Picqart ever aspired, much less wanted. But he makes the best of it. The more he uncovers re: Dreyfus, the more he realizes that not only was Dreyfus wrongly accused, but the true perpetrator, a scoundrel named Esterhazy, is prancing around free, and still selling secrets to the Germans. The more Picquart tries to bring this to the attention of the authorities, the more he is thwarted, punished, and virtually exiled himself.

I'm not counting this as a spoiler alert, since it's history and if you were interested you already knew or jumped to Wikipedia. Picquart eventually triumphs, but at great cost to everyone involved.

Bits and pieces that made this good novel great are:

cameos from historic figures such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clemenceau, and Emile Zola

a view of life in Paris at the turn of the century, complete with a salon performance with Debussy

a nasty glimpse of what being banished to the French Foreign Legion was all about

early spying techniques (shredding was, of course, done by hand, and the salvaged pieces were pieced back together much like the scene in "Argo")

A book I feared I would not be able to finish turned out to be one that I could not put down. I understand the novel will be made into a film, and I'll be eagerly waiting for that.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastical story of espionage, deceit, punishment and conspiracy that really did happen., February 26, 2014
This review is from: An Officer and a Spy: A novel (Hardcover)
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An Officer and A Spy reads like a fantastical novel with government subterfuge and outrageous, almost implausible, circumstances. It’s far-fetched to think the French Army would falsify documents in order to frame a captain for treason and send him to the nightmarish prison on Devil’s Island. It’s inconceivable that the army would turn against it’s own when a lone colonel discovers the truth.

But, it really did happen.

In 1895, the French army court-martialed Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew, for selling secrets to the Germans. A colonel, Georges Picquart, newly promoted to head the Statistical Section of spying begins to have doubts that Dreyfus is truly guilty. Thinking they accidently accused the wrong man, Picquart literally pieces together evidence that shocks him and threatens his own life.

Robert Harris’ book is well researched and his narrative brings to life how difficult it was to redeem the innocent Dreyfus. Gathering evidence in the 1890’s was much more arduous than it is today. There were no computers or electronic bugging systems. Cameras depended on the subject to remain still. And then, how do you present your evidence to your superiors when they themselves are culpable? Who do you turn to? The army was quite punitive; and the wrong move would affect your life and your loved ones.

It’s very well written, sophisticated, and thorough. It might seem that the incident is too drawn out in the sense of time. But, that is the amazing part. It did take years to finally redeem and free Dreyfus. And, the results of the exposure are amazing and would be unbelievable if it weren’t all true.

Highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shredded evidence: the Dreyfus scandal retold, February 23, 2014
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Robert Harris writes superior crime or suspense fiction, usually with historical background, sometimes a counter- historical one. He is one of few contemporary authors whom I follow loyally since years. Though I don't generally like fictionalized treatments of history, I make exceptions. Harris is always interesting.

The subject in his latest novel is the Dreyfus scandal of the late 19th century.
We are given a diary-like first person/ present tense narration in the voice of a French secret service officer. (The man would in real life later become French Minister of War.) The style is deliberately simple and matter of fact. Our source is an individualist, a critical observer of his world. He is not at ease in his position as a new promotee, the youngest colonel in the army, and he dislikes the spy business.

Despite his generally skeptical attitude, he asserts initially that he fully believes the accusations against Dreyfus. It happened in an atmosphere of antisemitic mass hysteria and the trauma of the 1870 war defeat against Prussia, with the loss of much territory. Based on threadbare evidence, Dreyfus has been condemned for providing army secrets to Germany. As an Alsatian Jew, he is suspected of placing his loyalty with Germany. It was less a judicial error than a deliberate injustice.
The book stays as near the known facts as possible. Dreyfus was innocent, but he suited the ideal profile for a scapegoat. The crime of treason was actually committed, just not by Dreyfus.

What we are given in this coldly brilliant book is a thriller about a judicial injustice. We can also read it for its observations on the world of information: secrets, deception, fraud, propaganda, delusion. The vast relevance of espionage for daily life should be obvious today, but its definition is so hard. It is a movable target. What does a spy do? Read newspapers? Read other people's mail? Listen in on dinner talk? What about market research or due diligence? Both are activities that can be and are often enough interpreted as espionage. Industrial and trade secrets, intellectual property rights, shredders, encryption, code breakers...
Spy craft has progressed since the Dreyfus days. We are confronted with modern espionage technologies on a daily basis. The Snowden case is a constant reminder that this is not an obscure subject.
One of Harris' best, and very timely.
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An Officer and a Spy: A novel
An Officer and a Spy: A novel by Robert Harris (Hardcover - January 28, 2014)
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