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Doubts Punctuate The 1950 Milan Kundera Spy Case

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“Mirek rewrote history just like the Communist Party, like all political parties, like all peoples, like mankind. They shout that they want to shape a better future, but it’s not true. The future is only an indifferent void no one cares about, but the past is filled with life, and its countenance is irritating, repellent, wounding, to the point that we want to destroy or repaint it. We want to be masters of the future only for the power to change the past.” The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

As if taking a cue from one of his characters a dark secret from the past threatens to crash on the opening chapter of Milan Kundera’s life. In October 2008, the Czech weekly Respekt published a story that claimed Kundera informed on one of his countrymen in 1950, leading to the man’s imprisonment for 14 years in a hard labour camp.

The basis of the assertion was an old police report that fell into the hands of Adam Hradilek, a historian researching the bleak days of Czechoslovakia’s Communist past. The police document reopened the story of Miroslav Dvoracek and that of his childhood friend Iva Militka. The report also brought the past of arguably the most brilliant literary surgeon of communism in Eastern Europe to the forefront. It is a widely reported and misreported story in which the jury is still out on the truth and doubt remains the only certainty.

The 1950 Police Report
The police report dated March 14, 1950 says: “Today at around 1600 hours a student, Milan Kundera, born 1.4.1929 in Brno, resident at the student hall of residence on George VI Avenue in Prague VII, presented himself at this department and reported that a student, Iva Militka, resident at that residence, had told a student by the name of Dlask, also of that residence, that she had met a certain acquaintance of hers, Miroslav Dvoracek, at Klarov in Prague the same day. The said Dvoracek apparently left one case in her care, saying he would come to fetch it in the afternoon… Dvoracek had apparently deserted from military service and since the spring of the previous year had possibly been in Germany, where he had gone illegally.”

The most important thing is the veracity of the police report and from what has come out the document is being considered as genuine (though there is speculation on whether its contents are genuine). Jerome Depuis of the French magazine L’Express travelled to Prague and cited the historian Rudolf Vedova from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (USTR), the same institute Hradilek works for: “We had the document analysed by the Czech Secret Forces archive. The paper, the names listed, the identity and the signature of the officer were all examined—and the document was found to be authentic.”

Around the same time Jiri Grusa, a Czech poet and in 2008 the president of the international writers association PEN, told a German radio station that he went to Prague to see the police document for himself. Grusa said that he now has no doubts that “the document is real. There’s no denying it. Only it is not Milan Kundera’s document, it is no denunciation, it’s a police annunciation. And if Kundera says, I didn’t do it, then I have to believe him.”

The Background
In 1948 a putsch in Czechoslovakia led to a communist takeover. This resulted in the armed forces being purged and veteran airmen who had flown with the RAF in the war (about 40 per cent of Czech Air Force) were demoted, kicked out or sent to labour camps due to their exposure to the West. Even students were not spared. Two boyhood friends, Miroslav Dvoracek and Miroslav Juppa, who had attended the same school in a small town in Eastern Bohemia were included on a list of expulsions in a memorandum from January 1949. When they were ordered a month later to join an infantry unit, Dvoracek and Juppa, aided by Juppa’s girlfriend Iva Militka and her relatives fled to West Germany.

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The Joke, Prague, and Milan Kundera

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In October 1963 Jean Paul Sartre visited Prague as a guest of the Czechoslovak Writers Union and predicted that the great novel of the second half of the twentieth century would be produced by the search for truth about the experiment of communism.

Earlier that year, in July, when he was in Moscow for another one of his trips to promote the project of an East-West writers’ community, the Soviet leader Kruschev had initiated a clampdown. At a reception in his dacha in Georgia attended by Sartre, the Soviet leader denounced Western writers as the henchmen of capitalism, a theme reiterated at a conference in Leningrad which castigated Western art and culture for its decadence and corruption.

In his Prague visit Sartre confirmed that as a socialist he recognised that they were many unwholesome aspects of Western society but, to his credit, he refused to condone the attack on authors at the Leningrad conference. The writers dismissed as decadent at the Leningrad conference had names like Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud.

Jim Holt wrote in a 2003 piece for Slate.com: “In the early 1950s, when the Cold War was at its peak, he (Sartre) realized that he was ‘living a neurosis’; despite his philosophy of action, he had been a mere bourgeois writer, like Flaubert. His interest in Marxism awakened, he decided to align himself with the Communist Party—this at a time when the crimes of Stalin were being documented and other intellectuals were abandoning the party. The erstwhile philosopher of freedom morphed into Sartre totalitaire.

That is something of a caricature, but Sartre did have his shameful moments over the next two decades. He broke with Camus because the latter denounced totalitarianism. He was silent on the gulag (‘It was not our duty to write about the Soviet labor camps’), and he excused the purges of Stalin and later Mao.”

The Paris take on him goes: “Sartre brought us both the malady—totalitarianism—and the antidote: freedom.”

Nevertheless, a novel did come out of the communist experiment but Sartre at that time was awake only to the ‘unwholesome aspects of Western society’. The Joke by Milan Kundera is a profound novel with an intricate and beautifully worked out plot. The novel was first published in 1967 in Czech under the title Žert but the English language translations left the author bewildered. It is the loss of many readers that a novel of such brilliance came distorted to them for almost 25 years in four different translations before the author could finally call the fifth English language version as being faithful to his Czech original.

Milan Kundera is an intensely private person and he broke a 25-year media silence when in mid-October 2008 he denied an article published in a Czech weekly that on the basis of an old police report said that he turned over a Western intelligence agent to communist authorities in 1950, a move which saw the man narrowly escape the death sentence and led to his spending 14 years in prison. It is a sensitive incident that has been widely reported and misreported and I would need a few days of research before I can comment on it.

Milan Kundera was born on April 1, 1929, in Brno, Czechoslovakia, and his first step in the arts began at an early age on the piano. His father, Ludvik Kundera, was a concert pianist and musicologist who had earned recognition for collaborating with the famed Czech composer Leoš Janáček. The influence and the understanding of music can be found throughout Kundera’s works.

Kundera was an important figure in the Prague Spring, the brief period of reformist activities crushed by the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia on 21st August 1968. In 1970 he was expelled from the Communist Party for the second time after an earlier expulsion in 1950 had yielded to a readmission in 1956. The second time he was also expelled from the Writers Union and lost his job as a teacher of world literature on the film faculty at the Prague Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. Access to his work was banned, and Kundera was reduced to making a living by writing an astrology column under a fictitious name. He described that experience in that unforgettable novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Some biographical material even says he worked as a labourer.

In an interview with Philip Roth, Kundera says, “Then they expelled me from University. I lived among workmen. At that time, I played the trumpet in a jazz band in small-town cabarets. I played the piano and the trumpet. Then I wrote poetry. I painted. It was all nonsense. My first work which is worth while mentioning is a short story, written when I was thirty, the first story in the book Laughable Loves.”

Jan Čulík, an independent journalist and a senior lecturer in Czech studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, says, “Most Western critics originally understood Žert as a political novel, a protest against Stalinist totalitarianism. Protest against Stalinism is however only one of many themes in the novel. Kundera rightly objected to such a simplified interpretation. He pointed out that the 1950s in Czechoslovakia attracted him as a scene for the novel only ‘because this was a time when History made as yet unheard of experiments with Man. Thus it deepened my doubts and enriched my understanding of man and his predicament.’ Czech critics of the 1960s correctly understood Žert as a work probing the deepest essence of human existence.”

In that interview to Roth, Kundera says: “Totalitarianism is not only hell, but also the dream of paradise—the age old drama of a world where everybody would live in harmony, united by a single common will and faith, without secrets from one another. Andrè Breton, too, dreamed of this paradise when he talked about the glass house in which he longed to live. If totalitarianism did not exploit these archetypes, which are deep inside us all and rooted deep in all religions, it could never attract so many people, especially during the early phases of its existence. Once the dream of paradise starts to turn into reality, however, here and there people begin to crop up who stand in its way, and so the rulers of paradise must build a little gulag on the side of Eden. In the course of time this gulag grows ever bigger and more perfect, while the adjoining paradise gets ever smaller and poorer.”

The Joke is a first person narrative by four characters-narrators and they appear reflectively in each other’s rendition. Armed with just a harmless little prank the novel exposes the brutal and bleak world of a totalitarian system and it does so with a deep understanding of the human condition. It is the power of the story coupled with Kundera’s genius to unearth every human emotion that makes The Joke such a complete delight.

In The Art of the Novel Kundera presents his conception of the European novel and also talks in detail about some of his books. It is a work of high erudition that grabs the essence of the novel as an art form and the novelist as an explorer of existence. “Well, I’ll never tire of repeating: The novel’s sole raison d’ etre is to say what only the novel can say.”

The novel shows the reader the world of possibilities. It is secondary whether the possibilities come into being or not. Asked that if you are trying to grasp a possibility rather than a reality, why take seriously the image you offer of Prague, for example, and of the events that occurred there; Kundera said: “If the writer considers a historical situation a fresh and revealing possibility of the human world, he will want to describe it as it is. Still, fidelity to historical reality is a secondary matter as regards the value of a novel. The novelist is neither historian nor prophet: he is an explorer of existence.”

“A character is not a simulation of a living being. It is an imaginary being.”

At the Fourth Congress of the Czechoslovak writers in June 1967, Czech writers openly clashed with the Communist leadership for the first time. Kundera became a leading figure in the movement for freedom. He delivered a speech that became a milestone in the history of independent, self-critical Czech thought.

“Nations tend to think of their cultures and political systems, even their frontiers, as the work of Man, but they see their national existence as a transcendent fact, beyond all question. The some-what cheerless and intermittent history of the Czech nation, which has passed through the very antechamber of death, gives us the strength to resist any such illusion. For there has never been anything self-evident about the existence of the Czech nation and one of its most distinctive traits, in fact, has been the unobviousness of that existence. This emerged most clearly in the early nineteenth century when a handful of intellectuals tried to resurrect our half-forgotten language and then, a generation later, our half-moribund people too.

Kundera said that small nations always face the threat of extinction and there is no point in preserving a separate Czech identity in a quickly integrating world if this community is incapable of making its own, innovative and unique contribution to mankind, in particular in the field of the arts. For that to happen he argued Czech literature must develop in conditions of total freedom. “All suppression of opinions, including the forcible suppression of wrong opinions, is hostile to truth in its consequences. For the truth can only be reached by a dialogue of free opinions enjoying equal rights.”

Having experienced democracy, Nazi subjugation, Stalinism and ‘socialism’, the Czechs are favourably placed to produce a unique testimony about man and his/her predicament, thus giving Czech culture meaning, maturity and greatness. The question remains, Kundera concluded, whether the Czech national community is aware of this opportunity and whether it will use it.

Kundera’s novels offer that unique and moving perspective on human existence. They tell a compelling human story with compassion and with rare insight of a world that is intoxicated with power and oblivious to individual sorrow. Describing irony he says, ‘the more attentively we read a novel, the more impossible the answer, because the novel is, by definition, the ironic art: its ‘truth’ is concealed, undeclared, undeclarable. Irony irritates. Not because it mocks or attacks but because it denies us our certainties by unmasking the world as an ambiguity. In other words, the art of the novel does not lie in the answer but in the beauty of the questions it raises.

In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he writes: “A question is like a knife that slices through the stage backdrop and gives us a look at what lies hidden behind it. In fact, that was exactly how Sabina had explained the meaning of her paintings to Tereza: on the surface, an intelligible lie; underneath, the unintelligible truth showing through.”

Sources: Sartre by David Drake; Slate.com, Interview with Philip Roth, writings of Jan Čulík, and the novels of Milan Kundera.

To Write Or Not To Write

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Victor Hugo once said: “If a writer wrote merely for his time, I would have to break my pen and throw it away.” Great novels are not dated in any essential sense as they capture the timeless human condition and longevity is the ultimate test for them. A vexing question for writers is as to why they write and what they seek to achieve via writing. In this post I’ll take some authors and present their views on the writing process and elaborate on how they look at what they do.

J.D. Salinger in a 1974 telephonic interview given to the New York Times from his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, said: “There is a marvellous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy. I like to write. I love to write. But I write just for myself and my own pleasure.”

When he gave the interview it was about nine-and-a-half years since he had published his last novella ‘Hapworth 16, 1924’ in The New Yorker magazine in June 1965. The interview in 1974 was also his first since 1953, when he gave one to a 16-year-old girl of a high school newspaper in Cornish.

Salinger, who died aged 91 in January this year, blasted his way to literary fame and cult-like devotion with the 1951 publication of The Catcher in the Rye. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” That’s how the frenetic three-day account around Christmas of Holden Caulfield began in the modern epic that is the benchmark against which all coming-of-age novels are measured.

Salinger remained a unique celebrity after the novel in the sense that his absence from public life further fuelled the curiosity around his life and works. Salinger was an extremely private man and after Catcher he devoted himself to creating fiction that centred on religion and ‘exposed the spiritual hollowness’ in American society (from http://www.deadcaulfields.com/; a website dedicated to the life and works of Salinger). To this end he collected characters from his early stories and bound them together into a single family—the Glass family. He described the family of seven children and their parents Les and Bessie Glass as ‘settlers in twentieth century New York.’

Salinger said: “I think writing is a hard life. But it’s brought me enough happiness that I don’t think I’d ever deliberately dissuade anybody (if he had talent) from taking it up. The compensations are few, but when they come, if they come, they’re very beautiful.”

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting the Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera discusses graphomania (a mania for writing books). The author recounts his encounter with a garrulous taxi-driver in Paris. The driver has chronic insomnia (Has had it since the war when he was a sailor and his ship sank. He swam three days and three nights before being rescued). In his extra time he writes and is working on a book about his experiences.

‘“Are you writing it for your children? As a family chronicle?’

He chuckled bitterly: ‘For my children? They’re not interested in that. I’m writing a book. I think it could help a lot of people.’

That conversation with the taxi driver suddenly made clear to me the essence of the writer’s occupation. We write books because our children aren’t interested in us. We address ourselves to an anonymous world because our wives plug their ears when we speak to them.

You might say that the taxi driver is not a writer but a graphomaniac. So we need to be precise about our concepts. A woman who writes her lover four letters a day is not a graphomaniac. She is a lover. But my friend who makes photocopies of his love letters to publish them someday is a graphomaniac. Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, personal diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one’s close relations) but a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers).”

This is another quote by Kundera: “The irresistible proliferation of graphomania shows me that everyone without exception bears a potential writer within him, so that the entire human species has good reason to go down into the streets and shout: we are all writers! For everyone is pained by the thought of disappearing, unheard and unseen, into an indifferent universe, and because of that everyone wants, while there is still time, to turn himself into a universe of words. One morning (and it will be soon), when everyone wakes up as a writer, the age of universal deafness and incomprehension will have arrived.”

In the afterword of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a novel that unfolds on a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son and becomes ‘a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions on how to live’ author Robert M. Pirsig says: “Certainly no one could have predicted what has happened. Back then, after 121 others had turned this book down, one lone editor offered a standard $3,000 advance. He said the book forced him to decide what he was in publishing for, and added that although this was almost certainly the last payment, I shouldn’t be discouraged. Money wasn’t the point with a book like this.

That was true. But then came publication day, astonishing reviews, best-seller status, magazine interviews, radio and TV interviews, movie offers, foreign publications, endless offers to speak, and fan mail… week after week, month after month. The letters have been full of questions: Why? How did this happen? What is missing here? What was your motive? There’s a sort of frustrated tone. They know there’s more to this book than meets the eye. They want to hear all.

There really hasn’t been any ‘all’ to tell. There were no deep manipulative ulterior motives. Writing it seemed to have higher quality than not writing it, that was all.”

The last author that I want to consider in order to approach the writing process is the 2006 Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. I discovered Pamuk late and was blown away by My Name is Red. The novel is set in Istanbul in the late 1590s. The Ottoman Sultan commissions a great book: a celebration of his life and his empire, to be illuminated by the best miniaturists of the day. The novel opens with the murder of one of the artists and the mystery behind it sustains the pace and some of the tension in the plot. However, the murder is the backdrop from where the author enters into a meditation on art, love, artistic devotion and the conflict between East and West.

My Name is Red is a first person narrative; the titles of the chapters tell you who is doing the talking. It works brilliantly as you get to see how the same event is perceived by different people. The novel surgically opens and reveals the entire panorama of human relationship and motive. For instance you get to see the novel’s love story from the perspective of Black as well as Shekure (the man and the woman).

My Name is Red was translated by Erdag M. Goknar. The recent works of Orhan Pamuk are translated by Maureen Freely, a US journalist, translator, author, and professor who grew up in Turkey and now lives in England. In a review for New Statesman Freely said of My Name is Red: “More than any other book I can think of, it captures not just Istanbul’s past and present contradictions, but also its terrible, timeless beauty. It’s almost perfect, in other words. All it needs is the Nobel Prize.”

Dick Davis in a review for the Times Literary Supplement wrote: “Heartbreakingly persuasive… This novel is then formally brilliant, witty and about serious matters. But even this inclusive description does not really capture what I feel is the book’s true greatness, which lies in its managing to do with apparent ease what novelists have always striven for but very few achieve. It conveys in a wholly convincing manner the emotional, cerebral and physical texture of daily life, and it does so with great compassion, generosity and humanity.”

Pamuk himself has given less weight to the murder mystery and the East-West question and has called the arduous work of the miniaturist, the artist’s suffering, and his dedication to his work as the central issues of My Name is Red. The stories within the narrative of the old masters of Herat and of the great Bihzad are fascinating. Even towards the end Pamuk makes the reader marvel when Master Osman gets completely lost in admiring the illuminated pages of yesteryears and when the other miniaturists lose themselves while remembering the long days of their apprenticeship in the Sultan’s workshop. Pamuk has the gift of offering the reader any number of diversions to savour even when the tension of the plot is approaching boiling point.

‘Sirin falling in love with Husrev by looking at his picture is the best-known and most frequently illustrated story in Islamic literature’ and Pamuk uses it as a model for many scenes, gatherings, and stances in the novel. In a similar manner Pamuk sketches the character of Shekure so brilliantly that it becomes possible to fall in love with her just by reading.

In Pamuk’s words: “My book really has only one center, one heart: the kitchen! It is the place where Hayriye seeks to influence Esther the clothier with gossip and food; Shekure, too, comes downstairs to the kitchen to advance her intrigues, send off letters and notes, scold her children, and supervise the cooking. The kitchen and all that it contains are the platform on which everything stands.”

Pamuk captures the essence of a writer’s occupation in his book Other Colours: “In order to be happy I must have my daily dose of literature. In this I am no different from the patient who must take a spoon of medicine each day. …To read a dense, deep passage in a novel, to enter into that world and believe it to be true—nothing makes me happier, nothing more surely binds me to life. …If my daily dose of literature is something I myself am writing, it’s all very different. Because for those who share my affliction, the best cure of all, and the greatest source of happiness, is to write a good half page every day. For thirty years I’ve spent an average of 10 hours a day alone in a room, sitting at my desk. If you count only the work that is good enough to be published, my daily average is a good deal less than half a page.

…But please don’t misunderstand me: A writer who is as dependent on literature as I am can never be so superficial as to find happiness in the beauty of the books he has already written, nor can he congratulate himself on their number or what these books achieved. Literature does not allow such a writer to pretend to save the world; rather, it gives him a chance to save the day. And all days are difficult. Days are especially difficult when you don’t do any writing. When you cannot do any writing. The point is to find enough hope to get through the day, and, if the book or the page you are reading is good, to find joy in it, and happiness, if only for a day.”

Three Cheers For Afghanistan

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When Afghanistan took on India on Saturday at the World T20 championship American novelist Marvin Cohen’s words came to my mind: “Life is an elaborate metaphor for cricket.”

War-ravaged Afghanistan’s journey from refugee camps to the elite league of cricket is nothing short of heroic and they played extremely-well considering the context. One Afghan player got to a fifty faster than a run a ball and another bowled sharply and with purpose. There was no hesitancy in running between the wickets and everyone noticed that the players were not overawed. Why would they be? South African captain Graeme Smith was quoted by the New York Times, when told that an Afghan batsman had declared himself unafraid of Dale Steyn—one of the world’s fastest bowlers—as saying: “I wouldn’t be either, if I had grown up in a war zone.”

The great Australian all-rounder and World War II fighter pilot Keith Miller had a very relaxed attitude on the playing field that enchanted spectators and made him a favourite of the English public. He attributed this to the fact that sport was trivial in comparison to war. When asked many years later about pressure on the cricket field Miller responded with the famous quote: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt (German fighter plane) up your arse, playing cricket is not.”

Richard Downey, the Archbishop of Liverpool from 1928 to his death in 1953, made a curious observation about cricket when he said: “If Stalin had learned to play cricket, the world might now be a better place.” That gives us the context as the Cold War’s last and most poignant battle was fought in the treacherous terrain of Afghanistan.

Is cricket really trivial compared to war? For help I turn to Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera and to his amazing novel The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

“At a time when history still made its way slowly, the few events were easily remembered and woven into a backdrop, known to everyone, before which private life unfolded the gripping show of its adventures. Nowadays, time moves forward at a rapid pace. Forgotten overnight, a historic event glistens the next day like the morning dew and thus is no longer the backdrop to a narrator’s tale but rather an amazing adventure enacted against the background of the over-familiar banality of private life.

Since there is no single historic event we can count on being commonly known, I must speak of events that took place a few years ago as if they were a thousand years old: In 1939, the German army entered Bohemia, and the Czech state ceased to exist. In 1945, the Russian army entered Bohemia, and the country once again was called an independent republic.”

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting is a study of variations. ‘The various parts follow each other like the various stages of a voyage leading into the interior of a theme, the interior of a thought, the interior of a single, unique situation the understanding of which recedes from my sight into the distance.’ Mirek says in the opening chapter of the novel: The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. The chapter that brings out the thought behind this piece is the second chapter that contains an orgy of pleasure taking place under the larger canvas of pain.

“Karel shrugged his shoulders in resignation. Marketa was right: Mama had really changed. She was pleased with everything, grateful for everything. Karel had been expecting in vain a quarrel over some little thing.
On a walk a day or two before, she had gazed into the distance and asked: ‘What is that pretty little white village over there?’ It wasn’t a village, just boundary stones. Karel took pity on his mother, whose sight was dimming. But her faulty vision seemed to express something more basic: what appeared large to them, she found small; what they took for boundary stones, for her were distant houses.

To tell the truth, that was not an entirely new trait of hers. The difference was that at one time it had annoyed them. One night, for instance, their country was invaded by the tanks of a gigantic neighbouring country. That had been such a shock and brought such terror that for a long time no one could think of anything else. It was August, and the pears in their garden were ripe. A week earlier, Mama had invited the pharmacist to come and pick them. But the pharmacist neither came nor even apologized. Mama was unable to forgive him, which infuriated Karel and Marketa. They reproached her: Everyone else is thinking about tanks, and you’re thinking about pears. Then they moved out, taking the memory of her pettiness with them.

But are tanks really more important than pears? As time went by, Karel realized that the answer to this question was not as obvious as he had always thought, and he began to feel a secret sympathy for Mama’s perspective, which had a big pear tree in the foreground and somewhere in the distance a tank no bigger than a ladybug, ready at any moment to fly away out of sight. Ah yes! In reality it’s Mama who is right: tanks are perishable, pears are eternal.”

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