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First published in 1994, this novel (which has itself won major international literary awards) explores the engagingly dysfunctional mind and heart of Victor Frances, a successful screenwriter, and a bland usurper of things and people that don't belong to him—not unlike Shakespeare's Richard III (the source of Marías's exceedingly witty title). The novel begins with a bang, so to speak, when Victor's mistress Marta Deán dies of a heart attack in bed, precluding their usual lovemaking—and it then spins off into amusingly unpredictable directions as Victor observes Marta's funeral from a safe distance, then eludes the suspicions of her angrily bereaved family (most notably Marta's husband Eduardo, who pursues, Javert-like, his late wife's unknown lover). Marías's portrayal of Victor is convincingly complex. Before absconding from his love nest, he prepares breakfast for Marta's sleeping two-year- old son. And, in a dazzling comic scene, Victor (who's inexplicably drawn toward intimacy with Marta's distraught family) patiently endures the near-lunatic ravings of Marta's self-important father Don Juan Tellez. Further delicious complications are added by Victor's ongoing and deeply confused détente with his ex-wife Celia. Unfortunately, all these splendidly handled elements are subsumed in the thick rhetorical fog cast over the novel by Victor's exhaustively extended digressive monologues, which are filled with apposite but monotonous Shakespearean quotations, many of which take the form of long nonstop sentences and paragraphs.
There's a brilliant fictional imagination at work here, but this novel tests even the most willing reader's patience. All the same, Marías's is a world-class talent, one always worth reading.
“His prose demonstrates an unusual blend of sophistication and accessibility.” —The New Yorker
“Marías is one of the best contemporary writers.” —J. M. Coetzee
"By far Spain's best writer today." —Roberto Bolaño
"A great writer." —Salman Rushdie
"The most subtle and gifted writer in contemporary Spanish literature." —Boston Sunday Globe
"Marías is simply astonishing." —The Times Literary Supplement
“Javier Marías is such an elegant, witty and persuasive writer that it is tempting simply to quote him at length.” —The Scotsman
"Marías uses language like an anatomist uses the scalpel to cut away the layers of the flesh in order to lay bare the innermost secrets of that strangest of species, the human being." —W. G. Sebald
"His prose possesses an exquisite, almost uncanny observation, recreating moments and moods in hypnotic depth." —The Telegraph
“Javier Marías is a novelist with style . . . His readers enter, through him, a strikingly and disturbingly foreign world.” —Margaret Drabble
"A supreme stylist." —The Times
"Marías writes the kind of old-fashioned speculative prose we associate with Proust and Henry James. . . . But he also deals in violence, historical and personal, and in the movie titles, politicians, and brand-names and underwear we connect with quite a different kind of writer." —The London Review of Books
No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead woman in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will remember. No one ever expects anybody to die at the least opportune of moments, even though this happens all the time, nor does it ever occur to us that someone entirely unforeseen might die beside us. The facts or the circumstances of a death are often concealed: it is common for both the living and the dying — assuming that they have time to realize they are dying — to feel embarrassed by the form and appearance of that death, embarrassed too by its cause. Seafood poisoning, a cigarette lit as the person is drifting off to sleep and that sets fire to the sheets or, worse, to a woollen blanket; a slip in the shower — the back of the head — the bathroom door locked; a lightning bolt that splits in two a tree planted in a broad avenue, a tree which, as it falls, crushes or slices off the head of a passer-by, possibly a foreigner; dying in your socks, or at the barber's, still wearing a voluminous smock, or in a whorehouse or at the dentist's; or eating fish and getting a bone stuck in your throat, choking to death like a child whose mother isn't there to save him by sticking a finger down his throat; or dying in the middle of shaving, with one cheek still covered in foam, half-shaven for all eternity, unless someone notices and finishes the job off out of aesthetic pity; not to mention life's most ignoble, hidden moments that people seldom mention once they are out of adolescence, simply because they no longer have an excuse to do so, although, ofcourse, there are always those who insist on making jokes about them, never very funny jokes. What a terrible way to die, people say about certain deaths; what a ridiculous way to die, people say, amidst loud laughter. The laughter surfaces because we are talking about an enemy at last deceased or about some remote figure, someone who once insulted us or who has long since inhabited the past, a Roman emperor, a great-grandfather, or even some powerful person in whose grotesque death one sees only the still-vital, still-human justice which, deep down, we hope will be dealt out to everyone, including ourselves. How that death gladdens me, saddens me, pleases me. Sometimes the trigger for hilarity is merely the fact that it is a stranger's death, about whose inevitably risible misfortune we read in the newspapers, poor thing, people say, laughing, death as a performance or a show to be reviewed, all the stories that we read or hear or are told as if they were mere theatre, there is always a degree of unreality about the things other people tell us, it's as if nothing ever really happened, not even the things that happen to us, things we cannot forget. No, not even what we cannot forget.
There is a degree of unreality about what has happened to me and which is still not over, or perhaps I should use a different tense — the classic storytelling tense — and say, instead, what happened to me, even though it is still not over. Maybe now, when I tell it, I'll find myself laughing. I have my doubts though; it is not yet remote enough and my dead person has not long inhabited the past, she was neither powerful nor an enemy, and I cannot really say that she was a stranger either, although I knew very little about her when she died in my arms — now, on the other hand, I know more. Fortunately, she was not naked, at least not entirely, we were in the process of undressing, of undressing each other as one tends to do the first time it happens, that is, on those first nights that have all the appearance of being unforeseen, or which you pretend to yourself were unpremeditated in order to save your modesty, so that later on, you can experience a feeling of inevitability and thus shrug off any possible guilt, people believe in predestination and the intervention of fate, when it suits them. It is as if, when it comes to the point, everyone wanted to say: "I never sought it, I never wanted it," when things turn out badly or depress you, or when you regret something, or end up hurting someone. I neither sought nor wanted it, I should say now that I know she is dead, and that, even though she hardly knew me, she died in my arms inopportunely — undeservedly too, for I was not the one who should have been at her side. No one would believe me if I said it, not that that matters much, since I am the person doing the telling and people can either choose to listen to me or not. Now, however, while I can say that I never sought it, never wanted it, she cannot say that or anything else, she cannot contradict me, the last thing she said was: "Oh God, the child." The first thing she had said was: "I don't feel well, I don't know what's wrong with me." I mean that was the first thing she said once the process of undressing had been interrupted, we were already in her bedroom, half-lying down, half-dressed and half-undressed. She suddenly withdrew from me and covered my lips with her hand as if not wanting to make the transition from kissing my lips to not kissing them until she had replaced this with some other affectionate gesture or touch, she pushed me gently with the back of her hand and then turned over and lay on her side, facing away from me, and when I asked her: "What's up?", that is what she replied: "I don't feel well, I don't know what's wrong with me." That was when I first saw the back of her neck, which I had never seen before, with her hair slightly lifted (as it is in certain nineteenth-century portraits of women) and somewhat tangled and sweaty, and yet it wasn't hot in the room, an old-fashioned neck traversed by striations or threads of black, sticky hair, like half-dried blood, or perhaps mud, like the neck of someone who slipped in the shower, but still had time to turn off the tap. It all happened very fast and there was no time to do anything. There wasn't time to call a doctor (and what doctor could you call at three o'clock in the morning? doctors don't even make house calls at lunchtimes these days) or to call a neighbour (and which neighbour, I didn't know them, I wasn't in my own house and had never before been in that house which I had entered as a guest and where I was now an intruder, I had never even been in that street before, hardly ever been in that part of town, and then only a long time ago) or call her husband (and how could I, of all people, phone her husband, besides, he was away and I didn't even know his full name), or wake up the child (and what would be the point of waking the child, when it had taken so long to get him to sleep), or even to try and help her myself, her illness came on very suddenly, at first, I thought or we thought that the meal, with all its interruptions, had disagreed with her, or I thought that perhaps she was already becoming depressed by or beginning to regret what had happened, or had felt suddenly afraid, those three things often take the form of malaise and illness, fear and depression and regret, especially if the latter coincides with the acts that provoke it, all at once, a yes and a no and a perhaps and, meanwhile, everything has moved on or is gone, the misery of not knowing what to do and of having to act regardless, because one has to flu up the insistent time that continues to pass without waiting for us, we move more slowly: having to decide without knowing, having to act without knowing and yet foreseeing, and that is the greatest and most common of misfortunes, foreseeing what will come afterwards, it is a misfortune generally perceived as quite a minor one, yet experienced by everyone every day. It is something you get used to, we take little notice of it. She felt ill, I hardly dare write her name — Marta, that was her name, and her surname was Téllez — she said that she felt sick and I asked her: "But what do you mean, in your stomach or in your head?" "I don't know, I feel absolutely deathly, I just feel horribly queasy all over, all over my body." That body that was now in my hands, the hands that touch everything, the hands that squeeze or caress or explore or even strike (I didn't mean to, it was an accident, don't hold it against me), the sometimes mechanical gestures of hands feeling their way over a body about which they are still undecided as to whether or not it pleases them, and then suddenly that body feels sick, that most diffuse of malaises, all over her body, as she put it, and she had also said, "I feel absolutely deathly," she had not meant it literally, but as a figure of speech. She did not think she was dying, nor did I, besides, she had said: "I don't know what's wrong with me." I kept asking questions because that is a way of avoiding having to do anything, and not only asking questions, for talking and telling all avoid the kisses and the blows and having to take steps, putting an end to the waiting, and what could I do, especially at first, when according to the rules of what should and shouldn't happen — rules that are, at times, broken — it should have been only a passing phase. "Do you actually feel like being sick?" She didn't reply in words, she shook her head, the back of her neck with its threads of hair like half-dried blood or mud, as if it were too much of an effort to speak. I got off the bed and walked round it and knelt down by her side so that I could see her face, I put a hand on her forearm (touch consoles, the hand of the doctor). She had her eyes tight shut at that moment — long lashes — as if the light from the table lamp hurt her eyes, the lamp we had not as yet switched off (although I was thinking of doing so shortly, before she became ill I had wondered whether to switch it off now or later: I wanted to see, I had still not seen that new body that was sure to please me, so I had not switched it off). I left the lamp on, now it might be useful to us in view of her sudden indisposition, her sudden illness or depression or fear or regret. "Do you want me to call a doctor?" and I thought of those unlikely accident and emergency numbers, the phantasmagoria of the telephone book. She shook her head again. "Where does it hurt you?" I asked and she feebly indicated a vague area comprising her chest and her stomach and below, in fact her whole body apart from her head and her extremities. Her stomach was uncovered now, her chest less so, she was still wearing (although the hook was undone) her strapless bra, a vestige of summer, like the top half of a bikini, it was slightly too small for her, perhaps she had put on an older, smaller bra precisely because she was expecting me that night and because, despite appearances and despite the carefully engineered coincidences that had led us to that double bed, it had all in fact been premeditated (I know that some women wear their bra a size too small on purpose, to give them more uplift). I was the one who had undone her bra, but it had not come off, Marta was gripping it now with her arms or armpits, perhaps unintentionally. "Is it passing off a bit?" "No, I don't know, I don't think so," she said, in a voice that was now not merely diminished, but distorted by pain or, rather, by anxiety, because I don't actually know that she was in any pain. "Wait a bit, I can hardly speak," she added — being ill makes you lazy — but nevertheless she did say something else, she wasn't so ill that she had forgotten about me, she was considerate regardless of the circumstances and even though she was dying, in my brief acquaintance with her she had struck me as being a considerate person (but then we didn't know that she was dying): "Poor thing," she said, "you weren't expecting this. What an awful evening." I hadn't been expecting anything, or perhaps I had, the same thing that she had been expecting. The evening hadn't been awful up until then, perhaps a touch boring, and I don't know if she sensed what was about to happen to her or if she was referring to the excessively long wait we had had, because the child had not wanted to go to sleep. I got up, walked back around the bed and lay down on the side I had occupied before, on the left side, thinking (again I saw the nape of her motionless, striated neck, hunched as if she were cold): "Perhaps I should just wait and not ask her anything for a while, just leave her to be quiet and see if it passes off, not force her to answer questions or try and assess every few seconds if she's a little better or a little worse, thinking about an illness only intensifies it, so does watching it too closely."
I looked at the walls of the bedroom which I had not even glanced at when I first entered it, because I had been looking at the woman who, before, had been by turns vivacious or shy and who was now in a bad way, the woman who had led me there by the hand. There was a full-length mirror opposite the bed like in a hotel room (they were a couple who liked to look at themselves before going out into the street, before going to bed). The rest of the room, on the other hand, was a domestic bedroom, for two people, there were telltale signs left by a husband on the table on my side of the bed (she had immediately gravitated towards the half she occupied each night and each morning — something beyond dispute, mechanical): a calculator, a letter opener, a sleep mask given out by some airline to shut out the glare of the ocean, a few coins, a dirty ashtray and a radio alarm, in the lower compartment there was a carton of cigarettes of which only one pack remained, a bottle of extremely virile Loewe cologne that someone must have given him as a present, possibly Marta herself on the occasion of a recent birthday, two novels, also presents (or perhaps not, but I couldn't imagine myself ever buying them), a tube of Redoxon, an empty glass he hadn't had time to put away before leaving on his trip, a magazine supplement listing the television programmes, programmes he would not see, for he was away that night. The television was at the foot of the bed, beside the mirror, they were people who liked their comforts, for a moment it occurred to me to use the remote control to switch it on, but the remote control was on the other bedside table, on Marta's side, and I would have to walk around the bed again or bother her by stretching my arm above her head, what would she be thinking about now, if it was just depression or fear that had gripped her. I stretched out my arm and picked up the remote control, she didn't notice even though the rolled-up sleeve of my shirt brushed her hair. On the left-hand wall, there was a reproduction of a rather kitsch painting by Bartolomeo da Venezia that I happen to know well, it's in Frankfurt, it depicts a woman with rather straggly ringlets and wearing a laurel wreath, a circlet and a diadem on her forehead, she is holding a bunch of small flowers in her raised hand and has one (rather flat) breast exposed; to the right, there were fitted wardrobes painted white like the walls. Inside would be the clothes that her husband hadn't taken with him on his trip, most of them, it was a short trip according to what his wife Marta had told me during supper, to London. There were also two chairs with clothes draped over them, the clothes were perhaps dirty or newly washed and still unironed, Marta's bedside lamp did not cast enough light on them for me to see. On one of the chairs I saw some men's clothing, a jacket slung over the chairback as if the chair were a clothes hanger, a pair of trousers with a large-buckled belt (the zipper was open, as it always is on trousers that have not been put away), a couple of pale, unbuttoned shirts, the husband had only recently been in that room, that morning he would have got up from that very place, from the pillow I was now leaning against, and he would have decided to change his trousers, he was in a hurry, maybe Marta had refused to iron them for him. Those clothes were still breathing. On the other chair there were women's clothes, I saw a pair of dark stockings and two of Marta's skirts, they weren't like the skirt she was still wearing, they were smarter, perhaps she'd been trying them on, unable to decide, until a minute before I had knocked at the door, one never knows what to wear for romantic assignations (I had had no such problems, I wasn't even sure if it was a romantic assignation and my wardrobe tends to be rather monotonous anyway). In the posture she had adopted, the chosen skirt was now horribly creased, Marta was doubled up, I could see that she was squeezing her thumbs with her fingers and had drawn up her legs as if trying to use that pressure to calm her stomach and her chest, as if trying to contain them, that posture revealed her panties and, in turn, part of her buttocks, they were very small panties. Out of a sudden sense of modesty and to avoid her skirt becoming still more creased, I thought perhaps I should smooth it and pull it down, but I couldn't help liking what I saw and it was doubtful that I would go on seeing it — seeing any more of it — if she did not get any better, and, besides, Marta had possibly expected those creases, they had begun to appear already, as usually happens on those first nights, which are no respecters of the clothes you take off or of those you leave on, although there is a certain respect for the new, unknown body: perhaps that was why she hadn't ironed any of the clothes draped over the chairs, because she knew that the next day she would have to iron the skirt she put on tonight, which one, which is the most flattering, the night on which she would receive me, in such cases everything becomes creased or stained or crumpled and momentarily unusable.
Before switching on the television, I turned the sound down with the remote control, and, just as I had intended, a voiceless image appeared and Marta did not notice, even though the room immediately grew brighter. A subtitled Fred MacMurray appeared on the screen, it was an old movie on late at night. I flicked through the channels and returned to MacMurray in black and white, to his rather unintelligent face. And at that point, I could no longer keep myself from thinking, although no one ever thinks very much or in the order in which those thoughts are later retold or written down: "What am I doing here?" I thought. "I'm in an unfamiliar house, in the bedroom of a man I've never seen, a man I only know by his first name, which his wife has mentioned — naturally and irritatingly — several times throughout the evening. It's also her bedroom which is why I'm here, watching over her illness after having removed some of her clothes and having touched her, I do know her, although not very well, I've only known her for two weeks, this is the third time I've seen her in my whole life. Her husband phoned a couple of hours ago when I was already having supper in his house, he called to say that he'd arrived safely in London, that he'd dined extremely well at the Bombay Brasserie and that he was in his hotel room getting ready to go to bed, he had work to do the following morning, he's away on a short business trip." And his wife Marta didn't tell him that I was there, here, having supper. That made me almost certain that this was a romantic supper, although at the time her little boy was still awake. Her husband had doubtless asked after the boy, and she had told him that he was about to go to bed; her husband had probably said: "Put him on so that I can say goodnight to him," because Marta had said: "No, I'd better not, he's still wide awake and if he talks to you, he'll get even more excited and there'll be no getting him to sleep at all." In my view, that whole discussion was absurd, because the boy, nearly two years old according to his mother, spoke in a rudimentary, barely intelligible manner and Marta had to interpret and translate for him, mothers are the world's first interpreters and translators, who interpret and then articulate what is not even language, they interpret the child's expressions, their frantic gesturing and their different ways of crying, when the crying is still inarticulate and cannot be put into words, or excludes or impedes them. Perhaps his father could understand him too, which would explain why he asked to be allowed to speak to him on the phone; to make matters worse, the boy always spoke with a pacifier in his mouth. I said to him once, while Marta was in the kitchen for a moment and he and I were left alone in the living-cum-dining room, me sitting at the table with my napkin on my lap, he on the sofa clasping a small toy rabbit, the two of us watching television, he directly and I obliquely: "I can't understand you with the pacifier in your mouth." And the boy had obediently removed the pacifier and, holding it for a moment in his hand, in an almost eloquent gesture (in the other he held the rabbit), he had repeated whatever it was he had said before, although equally unsuccessfully with his mouth unencumbered. The fact that Marta did not allow the boy to speak on the phone made me even more certain that this was a romantic supper, because the boy, in his garbled half-language, might, despite everything, have communicated to his father that a man was there having supper. I soon realized that the boy tended only to pronounce the last part of words with two or more syllables, though not always the whole syllable (instead of "moustache" he said "tache", instead of "ice cream" he said "scream": I don't have a moustache, but a moustachioed mayor had just appeared on the screen; Marta had given me ice cream for dessert); even knowing that, it was difficult to decipher, but possibly his father was used to it, his interpretative senses also attuned to that primitive language spoken by only one speaker who, moreover, would soon cease to speak it. The boy still used very few verbs and so barely spoke in sentences, he got by using nouns and the occasional adjective, and he said everything in the same exclamatory tone. He had refused to go to bed while we were having supper or not having supper but waiting for Marta to come back to the table after her comings and goings to the kitchen and her patient solicitude towards the child. His mother had put on a video of a cartoon on the TV in the living room — at the time I didn't know there was another television in the house — to see if the flickering screen would send him to sleep. But the child remained alert, he had refused to go to bed, for all his ignorance or his precarious knowledge of the world he knew more than I did, and he was watching over his mother and watching over that guest whom he had never before seen in the apartment, he was guarding his father's place. There were several points in the evening when I would happily have left, I already felt more of an intruder than a guest, and more and more of an intruder the more certain I became that this was a romantic assignation and that the child knew this intuitively — the way cats do — and was trying to impede it with his presence, dead tired and battling against sleep, sitting quietly on the sofa watching a cartoon he didn't understand, although he did recognize the characters, because sometimes he would point at the screen and, despite the pacifier, I was able to understand what he was saying because I could see what he was seeing: "Titin!" he would say, "Cap'n!" and his mother would stop talking to me for a second and turn her attention to him and translate or reinforce what he had said, so that not one of his incipient, admirable words would remain uncelebrated, unechoed: "Yes, sweetheart, it's Tintin and the Captain." When I was little, I used to read Tintin in large-format books, nowadays, children watch him moving and hear him speaking in a ridiculous voice, so I couldn't help but be distracted from the fragmentary conversation and from that much-interrupted supper, I not only recognized the characters, but their adventures too, the Black Island, and I could not help but follow them out of the corner of my eye from my place at the table.
Excerpted from Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías. Copyright © 1994 by Javier Marías.
Translation copyright © 1996 The Harvill Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 2001 Robert Creeley. All rights reserved.
Posted December 24, 2009
It would be tempting to say that very little occurs in Javier Marias' 'Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me', and substantially, it would be true. It is also true that there is a great deal happening, and it is only because of Marias' style that this contradiction is possible. I suspect that many readers, especially those who are used to snappy dialog and quick, conclusive action, will initially find Marias difficult, maybe even tedious - it forced me to focus, though once I adapted to his style, the novel flowed, with few interruptions, to its completion.
As I said, there is little in the way of action. Marta Tellez, wife and mother, dies of natural causes in the arms of the narrator Victor, prior to consummating their illicit affair. From that simple, if dramatic, springboard, Victor examines the boundless ways in which people are connected - from shared memories and experiences to the ties of friendship and relation which are often formed more by accident than design - as he pursues the ripples caused by Marta's death. Compelled, or perhaps haunted, by his experience, Victor infiltrates the dead woman's family, cautiously eager to discharge the duty he feels he owes them by sharing the details of her final hours, and yet at the same time he remains detached and ruminative, concluding his narration by inverting the way he started it - by quietly pondering how the world takes its leave of us.
For the little that transpires in 'Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me', it is a fabulously dense and lyrical novel. This is due to Marias' method, a loopy spiral of streaming consciousness that never directly attacks his point, but instead circles it, lays siege to it, until it finally capitulates. Marias' deft handling of the story is evident from the very beginning - this is not an affected journey of discovery for both reader and narrator. This is a deliberate delivery - a recounting - and is thus gracefully understated, transferred all the more effectively by the lack of false tension. Little suspense, perhaps, but so interesting it's difficult to put down.
If Marias makes a few missteps along the way, they seem minor and forgivable, and to my mind, only tangentially related to his main thrust of our tenuous and melancholic connection to the world and its inhabitants. Where Marias succeeds most effectively is in the subtleties he teases out of his narrative. The connections he writes of are not new, of course, but surprising nonetheless, as his technique for bringing them to the surface reminds me most of flowing water that slowly reveals the outlines of things buried in the ground.
There are some novels that seem more like literary puzzles, as if the author is reserving his ideas only for those clever enough to decipher his abstruse clues - thankfully, 'Tomorrow on the Battle' is not that sort of novel, but that isn't to say I'm able to fully appreciate Marias' meanderings in one reading. What a pleasure to find a story that looks to be as revelatory in subsequent readings as in the first. Unfortunately, Marias' appeal will probably be limited - his style will not seem friendly to a great many readers - but those who are immediately attracted as well as those who are gradually won over will be rewarded with a singular reflection and a contemplative pace that I found extremely satisfying.
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Posted August 26, 2013
I'm finding it difficult to write a review for this novel. It's hard to put into words my feelings about this book, it's hard to explain it. Marias did it, but I'm not Marias. Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me is a beautiful, powerful, thought provoking novel. It's also dense, exhausting, and sometimes frustrating. This is not a casual read; Marias expects you to work for it. But if you're willing to put in the work, the payoff is great. Written in a stream-of-consciousness style, the plot meanders in page-long sentences and five-page paragraphs from point to point, taking numerous detours along the way into metaphysical contemplation. This is an old school novel of ideas. A pretentious phrase, I know, but one which accurately describes this book. Here we explore the power of memory and the destructive nature of time. Time marches forward, the past fades and is forgotten, until all history is fiction. Marias writes beautifully, weaving recurring images throughout the novel, coming back again and again to the same ideas from different directions. If you can get through it Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me will stay with you for a long, long time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 11, 2014
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