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J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee once wrote that a 'book should be an axe to chop open the frozen sea inside us.'1 With his award-winning novels, that is exactly what Coetzee does for his readers.

John Maxwell Coetzee (b. 1940), popularly known as J. M. Coetzee, is a South African-Australian novelist and a Nobel laureate. He is considered one of the finest writers in English literature and is among the few writers who have won both the Nobel Prize in literature and the Booker Prize.

About J. M. Coetzee

Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on 9 February 1940. Young Coetzee got his primary education from schools in Cape Town and Worcester. Coetzee has honours degrees in English and mathematics from the University of Cape Town. He also spent a few years in England doing a thesis on the English novelist Ford Madox Ford, then went on to complete a PhD on Samuel Beckett at the University of Texas.

Coetzee worked as an assistant professor of English at the State University of New York in Buffalo from 1968-71. He returned to South Africa and worked at the University of Cape Town, eventually becoming a Distinguished Professor of Literature. He has also held teaching positions at universities like the University of Chicago, Harvard University, Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University, and the State University of New York. Coetzee emigrated to Australia in 2002 and received citizenship in 2006. He currently holds an honorary position at the University of Adelaide.

J.M. Coetzee: awards

Coetzee has garnered worldwide recognition for his literary talents. Coetzee began his career in fiction in 1969 and achieved international critical acclaim with Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). Coetzee also received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for the novel. His literary talents were reaffirmed when his novels Life & Times of Michael K (1983) and Disgrace (1999) won the Booker Prize in 1983 and 1999, respectively, making him the first writer to win the Booker Prize twice. Coetzee was the fourth African writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Coetzee was subsequently considered for the Booker prize for the novels Summertime (2009), Elizabeth Costello (2003) and Slow Man (2005). In 2005, Coetzee was given the Order of Mapungubwe by the South African government for representing South Africa in the field of literature internationally. In 1998 Coetzee was awarded the Lannan Literary Award for Fiction. Coetzee has also won two Commonwealth Writers' Prizes for the African region, for Master of St Petersburg in 1995 and Disgrace in 2000. Coetzee has been recognised and honoured with honorary degrees from several prestigious universities worldwide.

J. M. Coetzee, Photo of J. M. Coetzee in a suit with a book on his lap, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Novelist J. M. Coetzee has won the Booker Prize twice, which few authors have achieved.

J. M. Coetzee: works

Coetzee arguably was a pioneer of the anti-apartheid movement within the Afrikaner literary tradition. He has often expressed concerns about politics and social injustice, especially in his home country, which was based on social hierarchy and segregation. Coetzee's works reflect these ideological and political positions, although he is not very outspoken about his political views in public.

His novels offer a poignant and humanising critique of institutions like apartheid and colonialism. Coetzee's public persona is shrouded in mystique as he is very reclusive. He avoids public engagements and famously did not show up to receive his two Booker prizes.

The Booker Prize: The Booker Prize (formerly the Booker Prize for Fiction and the Man Booker Prize) is a prestigious literary prize awarded annually for the best English novel published in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Coetzee is most famous for his fictional and semi-autobiographical novels.

Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

First published in 1980, Waiting for the Barbarians is the story of a man who serves as a magistrate at a frontier settlement. The protagonist and the empire both remain unnamed in the novel. The novel was reportedly influenced by Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy's 1904 poem 'Waiting for the Barbarians'. With a colonialist empire set in opposition to a society of 'barbarians', the novel is a critique of the atrocities of colonialism. Waiting for the Barbarians won numerous awards, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was included by Penguin in its selection of Great Books of the 20th Century.

Disgrace (1999)

Published in 1999, Coetzee's novel Disgrace tells the story follows David Lurie, an old, South African English professor who loses his job after having an affair with a student. It is set in apartheid South Africa, which Coetzee had publicly protested as pointless segregation of human lives. Disgrace won the Booker Prize and is considered one of Coetzee's best works.

Summertime (2009)

Summertime is the third novel from Coetzee's fictionalised memoir series by Coetzee. Coetzee uses his own name for the protagonist, who is also a writer. It talks about the life of a semi-fictional John Coetzee, narrated through the people who have been close to him, compiled by a fictional biographer. The novel is set in the 1970s, in Cape Town and other parts of South Africa. The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2009.

Coetzee's other fictionalised memoirs include Boyhood (1997) and Youth (2002). Other works of non-fiction by Coetzee include Doubling the Point (1992), White Writing (1988), Giving Offense (1996), and Stranger Shores (2001).

A memoir is an autobiographical work written in a strikingly literary style, inspired by select events in the author's life.

J.M. Coetzee: quotes

Coetzee's writing maintains a subtlety throughout his career. Seemingly simple statements in his novels often carry great weight upon further reflection.

Of this unrest, I myself saw nothing. In private I observed that once in every generation, without fail, there is an episode of hysteria about the barbarians.3

Waiting for the Barbarians

The narrator in Waiting for the Barbarians displays an ambivalent attitude toward the empire and the 'barbarians' as a reluctant participant in the imperial process. The magistrate is an outsider to both the empire and the culture the empire deems barbarians. At the same time, he is quick to see problems in the colonial system and sympathises with the barbarians.

Russians and Americans were set before him as antagonists between whom you had to choose (who do you like Smuts or Malan, who do you like Superman or Captain Marvel?)4

Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life

The politics of binaries that Coetzee protests in many of his works is evident in this quote taken from Coetzee's fictionalised memoir. Coetzee spent many years studying and teaching in anglophone countries at the height of the Cold War. While the character here is portrayed to be keen on Russia, for strangely non-political reasons, Coetzee was drawn to Russian writers and makes many intertextual references to Russian literature in his works.

I must not underestimate Coetzee.

He called me into his office today morning and sat me down. He is a hearty man, the kind that eats steak daily.5

Dusklands

Many of Coetzee's works have autobiographical elements. This quote is another example of Coetzee's self-referential creative habit. His self-portraits are self-reflexive, often including harsh criticism of the fictional Coetzee.

J. M. Coetzee, J. M. Coetzee signing Books, StudySmarterFig. 2 - J. M. Coetzee is known for being a recluse and signed copies of his works are very rare.

Here's a further look at some of the terms mentioned above!

  • Anglophone: English-speaking.
  • Intertextuality is a common technique in art and literature. Simply put, if a book or film makes a direct or indirect reference to another work of art, it is called intertextuality.
  • Self-reflexivity: An act of looking inwards. If an author references themselves or the book itself in the writing, it can be described as self-reflexivity.

J.M. Coetzee: bibliography

Coetzee's first novel was Dusklands (1974). He now has a remarkable number of published works to his credit, including autobiographical novels, translations from Dutch and Afrikaans, short fiction, and literary criticism.

J.M. Coetzee: novels

  • Dusklands (1974)
  • In the Heart of the Country (1977)
  • Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)
  • Life & Times of Michael K (1983)
  • Foe (1986)
  • The Master of Petersburg (1994)
  • Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997)
  • Disgrace (1999)
  • Youth: Scenes from Provincial Life II (2002)
  • Elizabeth Costello (2003)
  • Slow Man (2005)
  • Diary of a Bad Year (2007)
  • Summertime (2009)
  • The Schooldays of Jesus (2016)
  • The Childhood of Jesus (2013)
  • The Death of Jesus (2019)

J. M. Coetzee: short fiction

  • The Lives of Animals (1999)
  • Three Stories (2014)
  • Siete cuentos morales (2018)

J. M. Coetzee - Key takeaways

  • J.M. Coetzee is a South-African-Australian novelist.

  • He received a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2003 for his exceptional works in English.
  • Coetzee has worked as an academic in South Africa, Australia, and the United States.
  • Coetzee has won the Booker Prize twice but did not turn up to receive the awards in person.
  • His famous novels include Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), Disgrace (1999), Summertime (2009), and Foe (1986).

References

  1. J. M. Coetzee, Summertime, 2009
  2. Fig. 1 - J.M. Coetzee in Krakow (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:J.M.Coetzee_in_Krakow.JPG) by Mariusz Kubik (http://www.mariuszkubik.pl/) licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
  3. J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, 1983
  4. J.M. Coetzee, Scenes from Provincial Life, 1997
  5. J. M. Coetzee, Dusklands, 1997
  6. Fig. 2 Mariusz Kubik, http://www.mariuszkubik.pl/, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Frequently Asked Questions about J. M. Coetzee

J. M. Coetzee is a writer who won the Nobel prize for literature in 2003. He has also held academic positions in various universities in the United States, Australia, and the University of Cape Town.

J. M. Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa.

J.M. Coetzee is the most famous for his novels, such as Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) and Disgrace (1999). Coetzee won a Nobel Prize in literature in 2003 for his contributions to world literature.

Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians is believed to have been inspired by the poem of the same name written by the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy. The novel talks about the horrific nature of colonial interactions. 

J. M. Coetzee lives in Australia.

Final J. M. Coetzee Quiz

Question

Who wrote Waiting for the Barbarians?

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J.M. Coetzee.

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Where and when is Waiting for the Barbarians set?

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It is set in an unnamed colonial outpost in an unspecified time.

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Which empire is featured in Waiting for the Barbarians?

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The Empire is generic and nameless.

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What is the name of the protagonist and narrator in Waiting for the Barbarians?

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He has no name other than his profession job title, the Magistrate.

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Which character most represents the Empire?

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Colonel Joll.

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Who is Colonel Joll's right hand man?

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His warrant officer, Mandel.

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What happens to the 'barbarian' girl in the town?

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She is tortured by Colonel Joll. Due to her torture, she becomes disabled and is left behind by her people.

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What aspects of the 'barbarian' girl does the Magistrate fail to draw out or see?

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Her wit and intelligence.

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How is the Magistrate treated by the Empire when he questions their methods and acts to assist the 'barbarian' girl?

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He is imprisoned without trial, tortured and publicly humiliated.

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What are some themes in Waiting for the Barbarians?

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Torture and truth, imperialism and othering are some key themes in the novel.

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Who wrote Waiting for the Barbarians?

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J.M. Coetzee

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Which three texts can be said to have influenced Waiting for the Barbarians?

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Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, C.P. Cavafy's poem 'Waiting for the Barbarians', and The Tartar Steppe (1940) by Dino Buzzati.  

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When was the novel published?

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1980

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Who is J.M. Coetzee?

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A South African novelist.

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Which themes are explored in the novel?

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Otherness, Empire/colonialism, sexuality, and violence (especially torture)

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What is the novel about?

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It is a first-person story about a magistrate who lives in a settlement on the border of an ‘Empire’. 

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Do the 'barbarians' attack the outpost settlement?

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No

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What is Otherness?

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Otherness is a sociological term used to explain how people perceive themselves against others

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What was the Apartheid era in South Africa?

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The apartheid era was a period of South African history, from 1948 to the start of the 1990s. The word Apartheid is the Afrikaans word for ‘separateness’. It divided society along racial lines, with ‘Blacks’ and ‘Whites’ not mixing, and with ‘Whites’ holding political and economic power.    

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How many novels has Coetzee written?

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14

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Which awards has Coetzee won?

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The Nobel Prize (in 2003), the Booker Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, and the CAN (Central News Agency) Prize (three times). 

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What sort of person is Coetzee?

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Coetzee does not often give interviews and is somewhat of a recluse.

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Who wrote Life and Times of Michael K?

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J.M. Coetzee

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When is Life and Times of Michael K set?

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In the 1980s

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What is Life and Times of Michael K about?

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It is about a man who travels to Port Albert with his frail mother. 

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Where is Life and Times of Michael K set?

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In South Africa during the Apartheid era.

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What is the social situation at the time the novel is set?

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The country is under martial law because of a civil war. 

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What is Michael K good at?

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Gardening

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What are the main themes of Life and Times of Michael K?

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The mother-son relationship, war, race, human life 

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Which prizes has Coetzee won?

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The Nobel Prize (in 2003), the Booker Prize, the Jerusalem Prize, and the CAN (Central News Agency) Prize (three times). 

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Was there a civil war during this period in South Africa?

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No, it was a fictional event

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What does CM mean as a way of identifying Michael K?

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CM means 'coloured male'

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When was Life and Times of Michael K published?

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1983

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What criticism has been levelled at the novel?

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Sam Jordison thinks the character of Michael is poorly developed: he is simple but at the same time has complex thoughts. This makes the novel unconvincing for Jordison. 

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Where was J. M. Coetzee born? 

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Cape Town, South Africa

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What is J. M. Coetzee's nationality?

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J. M. Coetzee was originally South African and now holds an Australian citizenship. 

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What was J. M. Coetzee's first novel? 

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Dusklands (1974)

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J. M. Coetzee is the only person to receive the Booker prize twice: True/False

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False. J. M. Coetzee joined writers like Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood in the group of writers who have won the Booker prize more than once. 

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J. M. Coetzee has won both the Booker Prize and a Nobel Prize in literature: True/False

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True. Coetzee won the Brooker Prize in 1983 and 1999, and a Nobel Prize in literature in 2003.

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What is J. M. Coetzee's most famous novel? 

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Coetzee is renowned for the novels Life & Times of Michael K (1983), Disgrace (1999), and Waiting for the Barbarians (1980).

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What is J. M. Coetzee's public image? 

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Coetzee is a reclusive person who avoids award shows and public appearances. 

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Where did J. M. Coetzee teach?

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Coetzee has held academic positions in several universities in the United States, South Africa, and Australia, including his alma mater, the University of Cape Town.

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When did J. M. Coetzee start his writing career?

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Coetzee began writing fiction in 1969. His first novel Dusklands was published in 1974.

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What are the main themes in J.M. Coetzee's writing?

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Coetzee's fictional works offer commentary on various social issues. He uses his authorial voice to protest practices like apartheid in his country of birth, South Africa.

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What was Coetzee's collection of fictional memoirs called?

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Scenes from Provincial Life, published in three parts. 

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What are J. M. Coetzee's political views?

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Coetzee is not outspoken about his political views, but we see snippets of his own personal views in his works. He has protested many practices such as apartheid, war, and racism.

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Where does J. M. Coetzee live?

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Coetzee lives in Australia

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Why was J. M. Coetzee denied permanent residence in the U.S.? 

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Coetzee's application for permanent residence was rejected supposedly because of his views on the Vietnam war found in his works.

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What are the predominant themes in J. M. Coetzee's novels?

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Imperialism, racism, aparthied, violence, and war are among the topics discussed in Coetzee's works.

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When was Life and Times of Michael K published?

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1983.

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