An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (New Directions Paperbook)

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Things Just Happen, Don’t Ask Why: César Aira’s The Hare and Shantytown

“I have forced myself to contradict myself, in order to avoid conforming to my own tastes,” said Marcel Duchamp in an interview in 1945, seemingly describing the temperament of César Aira, the Argentinean fiction writer who would be born four years later, and whose fictions swerve with a barely controlled weirdness. Like for Duchamp, contradiction and incongruity are Aira’s bread and butter. He takes hold of, toys with, and throws by the side of the road any number of genres, moods, and plots, all in the space of a hundred pages, a length his 60 or so books almost never exceed. Aira doesn’t give the impression of trying to be clever, but instead of escaping his own boredom. His prose has a euphoric, blindfolded momentum; the events that take place are at once inevitable and unimaginable. Fate, that otherwise unfashionable narrative antique, has a hand in everything. To read Aira is to hurtle, and it’s not always pleasant. As one of translators, Chris Andrews, has put it, “Once you’re addicted to Aira, you can be disappointed by a swerve [...], but somehow you prefer being disappointed by him than satisfied by many other writers.” Part of the way Aira makes disappointment preferable to satisfaction is by keeping his characters in perpetual motion. In An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, a German artist hits the road in South America. In The Literary Conference, a mad scientist travels to Venezuela in order to clone Carlos Fuentes. In The Seamstress and the Wind, a mother mistakenly thinks that her son has been kidnapped and orders a taxi driver to take her to Patagonia. Aira’s novels are never without a parade, a chaotic sense of procession that spills over from the form of his writing into its content and back again. This is fiction as a never-ending car chase, and you might just get away if you can only stop your vehicle from turning into a lampshade. So it is in both the newly-translated Shantytown, in which a kindly middle-class bodybuilder walks daily to the slums of Buenos Aires out of a sense of camaraderie for the people who collect rubbish by hand, and The Hare (first published in the UK in 1997 by Serpent’s Tail, and now reissued by New Directions), the story of an English naturalist traveling in the wilds of Argentina in order to catch sight of the eponymous animal. If half the challenge of reading Aira is just keeping up with him, then to enjoy him is to fight the reflex to make sense of the sometimes beautiful and almost-always hilarious pandemonium as it passes by. This idea – that things just happen, don’t ask why – is something that the narrator of Shantytown spells out early on. Maxi, the well-to-do bodybuilder, works for the rubbish collectors just because it was, “something he did, that was all. It was spontaneous, like a hobby.” It’s not just his own motivations that Maxi doesn’t interrogate, it’s the world: watching people scavenge in the rubbish, he “didn’t ask himself why they were doing what they did.” Very quickly this refusal to interpret or make sense comes to seem like a metaphor for how Aira writes: not exactly unconsciously, but certainly not self-critically. “If Maxi had stopped to wonder whether or not they’d accept his help, or tried to find the right words,” the narrator tells us, “it would never have happened.” So there you have it: a writer describing how he writes about writing by not thinking about writing – by way of a metaphor about rubbish collection. An odd situation, to be sure. But none of this is any less than completely deliberate. Aira has a way of writing that doesn’t allow for inaction (but does allow him to commentate his own process). He refers to this method of writing as flight forward, which Andrews has described as, “not going back and rewriting, but attempting to redeem the errors or inadequacies of what he has already written by adding, by writing more, by improvising retrospective explanations.” Just like in life, you can’t undo the past. But you can build elaborate and fanciful justifications that no one believes: “Officer, my friend asked me to carry that stuff for him, he said it was medicine, and I decided to carry it in my sock so it wouldn’t get lost, I swear.” Yeah, right. In Shantytown, the plot seems to hinge on a drug called proxidine (Aira’s plots never actually hinge on anything other than his own whims), the effect of which, “was to increase the proximity of things, applied above all to the elements of a problem: by bringing them into sudden contiguity, it brought them closer to the solution.” Proxidine isn’t just a made-up drug, but also an analogy for the made-up device with which Aira resolves the puzzle-like plot of the book itself, drawing together its various elements for a final outrageous, overflowing denouement. This is where Aira’s likeness to an artist such as Duchamp dissolves (and there is a puff quote on the cover of The Hare proclaiming Aira to be “the Duchamp of Latin American literature” – so it’s not just me). The games Aira plays with plot and character aren’t cool, high-minded, chess-like things, but more like Twister, only with rules that no one seems to know (it would be too easy, of course, if there were no rules at all). The Hare, too, is possessed by Aira’s restless indifference to realism, the plot unfolding as capriciously as an exquisite corpse, as Clarke, the naturalist, and his traveling companions lurch across the Argentinean countryside from one misunderstanding with the local Indians to another (social conventions and traditions being important to Aira because they can be distorted and deformed). But there’s a slow, darkly syrupy quality to prose that is noticeably different from his other titles available in English. Clarke, visiting a remote part of the country, catches sight of oxen that, “had taken on the appearance of Japanese bulls, with swollen dewlaps and so many folds of white skin dangling from their backs that they appeared to be covered in sheets of marble, like Bernini statues in Rome.” That heaviness and the reference to Baroque art seem immediately at odds to the pragmatic, crash-and-bash prose style of Aira’s other books. “The impossible,” Aira writes early in The Hare, “is the first thing to become reality.” But does anything ever become reality in an Aira fiction? Things hover near authenticity, threaten to become real, seem for a moment to impersonate truth...and then just don’t. Halfway through The Hare, I suddenly thought: no two Aira characters ever really understand what the other one is saying. The meta-fictional dialogue in his stories is only for that one notable onlooker, the reader. In a very anti-modern way, plot is something that happens to Aira’s characters, rather than something that is determined by their actions. But what holds everything together is Aira’s refusal to repeat himself, his insistence upon contradicting himself, and his way of keeping proportion and perspective in states of constant flux. The size and the meaning of the world itself change from sentence to sentence according to an unknowable internal logic of ideas – things never in short supply when Aira’s around – about reality, perception, expression, and, above all, writing. Returning to more normal contemporary fiction after reading Aira – or simply to flesh-and-blood life itself – is a little like that odd childhood sensation of dismounting a trampoline, and feeling a heaviness rush back into your legs as you walk across solid ground. You ask yourself: was it always this boring?

Fleeing Forward: On César Aira’s Varamo

César Aira is probably as known for the sheer volume of his literary output as he is for any individual masterpiece in his immense oeuvre. Aira publishes an average of two novels a year, in a career that has produced over 70 books, a staggering feat of perpetual fecundity. His newly translated novella Varamo takes place over the course of one evening in 1923, and follows the exploits of a government worker in Panama. After leaving his office with a pair of counterfeit bills received as his monthly salary, the novel’s eponymous character, through a series of uncanny circumstances that stem from the anxiety that the possession of the counterfeit currency engenders, ends up writing, in the hours before dawn, “that celebrated masterpiece of modern Central American poetry, The Song of the Virgin Boy.” Like some of those fabricated writers pulled from the South American air by Roberto Bolaño in Nazi Literature in the Americas or those fictional Bartleby’s that Spanish novelist Enrique Vila-Matas created to accompany the real writers who preferred not to in Bartleby & Co., Aira’s Varamo has a story that seems too good to be true, and is. Varamo is a Kafkaesque civil servant and, in his spare time, an amateur embalmer -- but one thing he is not is a writer, for “never, in all his fifty years, had he written or felt any inclination to write a single line of poetry, nor would he ever again.” Though Varamo only creates one work of art, he does so feverishly, over the course of that evening, and thus embodies, if not Aira’s unending output, at least his method of fuga hacia adelante (which roughly translates to: “fleeing forward”). Aira’s fuga hacia adelante technique is a method of writing that avoids revision. What he has written remains, and the next day's task is to take what he wrote the previous day, and, whatever box he has written himself into, improvise a way out of by fleeing forward through propulsive improvisation. This concept of improvisation is central to Aira's work, and takes a thematic forefront in Varamo: Intending to be natural was, in itself, contradictory and self-defeating. In his case, it was condemned to failure from the outset, because if he intended to improvise his course of action, he would have to act as if he were really improvising, and at the same time he would, also, really be improvising, which was no more feasible than moving in two opposite directions at the same time. This is precisely what Varamo does: it moves in two opposite directions at the same time. The titular character’s inspired night, which begins, as only an Aira novel could, with counterfeit bills and an undead fish, and ends with an avant-garde poem, reads as an explication of the fuga hacia adelante method: In the interval between that moment and the dawn of the following day, ten or twelve hours later, he completed the composition of a long poem, from the initial decision to write it up to the final period, after which there were no further additions or corrections. And yet, throughout the book, it becomes obvious that Aira is not merely using Varamo’s story as a guidebook describing his literary method, but rather that Aira is mocking these radical ideas of textual production in the same sentences in which he is defending them. In addition to this complicated two-way view of textual production, Aira also posits an equivalent muddle of interpretative technique. As an improvised and counterfeit example of literary criticism (of a non-existent text by a fabricated writer), Varamo idealizes the notion that a true account of the producing mind can be discovered through a thorough reading of the text which that mind produced. Halfway into the 88-page novella, the narrator embarks on a lengthy aside, proclaiming that Varamo is “a work of literary history, not a fiction,” and explaining why the “free indirect style” is useful in his presentation of the “facts” of that evening in Varamo’s life: But our invasion of Varamo’s consciousness is not magical or even imaginative or hypothetical. It is a historical reconstruction. The difference is that we have presented it backwards, starting with the final results of our research. All the circumstantial details with which we have been coloring the story of the character’s day and making it credible have been deduced (in the most rigorous sense of the word) from the poem that he finally wrote, which is the only document that has survived. However, the obvious impossibility and imprecision of such a herculean task undermines this proposition, and instead of critical sincerity, humor pervades the pages. After all, how could it be that “all the critic has to do is translate each verse, each word, backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang?” Could a “true” history ever be created through interpretation by working backwards, into the particle of reality from which it sprang? It depends on a definition of the word “true,” as later a definition of the word “realism” becomes important in an interpretation of Varamo as well. Jorge Luis Borges and (Aira’s mentor) Osvaldo Lamborghini are the touchstones here, of course, but the most interesting influence may be found in the way the writing of Polish émigré Witold Gombrowicz, who lived nearly half his life in Aira’s home country of Argentina, sneaks into Aira’s internal landscapes. A reimagined Gombrowiczian obsessional fantasy underpins Aira's Varamo. Bolaño, who called Aira “one of the three or four best writers working in Spanish today,” also saw this Gombrowicz connection, writing: “His novels seem to put the theories of Gombrowicz into practice, except, and the difference is fundamental, that Gombrowicz was the abbot of a luxurious imaginary monastery, while Aira is a nun or novice among the Discalced Carmelites of the Word.” Varamo has been cast as a lesser work in relation to some of the other Aira already in English translation -- namely How I Became a Nun and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter -- and though this may be true, to overlook Varamo would be a mistake. As other great Spanish-language writers like Borges, Bolaño, and Vila-Matas have done, Aira shapes new worlds with his fiction -- but he does this in a unique style that is full of infinite possibility. As is written in Varamo, “Everything was possible, as in a world about to take shape.” Aira sees the world, and reality, in his own idiosyncratic way, and fashions the worlds of his books through the filter of that perspective, but as with all great writing, there is still an important component connecting it to reality, to “realism.” Though something like “free indirect discourse” may seem like a move toward the “magical,” and away from conventional realism, it is merely an attempt to get at a “truer” reality. This is the kind of “realism” we find in the novels of César Aira: Perhaps, said one, “the time has come for realism.” The other two disagreed vehemently: the time for realism would never come. To which the reply, and here they were all in agreement again, was that it depended on how realism was defined. The time for realism in that sense (to be defined) was always now.

The Aira Effect

About mid-way through César Aira’s novel An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, its protagonist, the German master of documentary painting Johann Moritz Rugendas and his assistant are crossing the Argentinean Pampas somewhere between Mendoza and San Luis.  They ride over a vast, featureless plain.  Soon they come to an even more desolate landscape. On the third day they came to expanses resonant with emptiness.  The sinister nature of the surroundings made an impression on the Germans, and, to their surprise, on the Gauchos too.  The old man and the boy talked in whispers, and the man dismounted on a number of occasions to feel the soil.  They noticed that there was no grass, not the least blade, and the thistles had no leaves: they looked like coral. It takes them some time to realize that this “lunar ocean” is the work of locusts who had swept through the land, leaving nothing behind.  Rugendas sets out in search of water and fodder.  Soon clouds gather: The storm broke suddenly with a spectacular lightning bolt that raced a zig-zag arc clear across the sky.  It came so close that Rugendas’ upturned face, frozen in an expression of idiotic stupor, was completely bathed in white light.  He thought he could feel its sinister heat on his skin, and his pupils contracted to pin-points.  The thunder crashing down impossibly enveloped him in millions of vibrations.  The horse began to turn beneath him.  It was still turning when a lightning bolt struck it on the head.  Like a nickel statue, man and beast were lit up with electricity.  For one horrific moment, regrettably to be repeated, Rugendas witnessed the spectacle of his body shining.  The horse’s mane was standing on end, like the dorsal fin of a swordfish. That’s what reading Aira is like: you don’t know where you are or what you are looking at, but the air is full of electricity. César Aira was born in Argentina in 1949, in the wonderfully named town of Colonel Pringles, the Wikipedia page of which promises visitors an Arbor of Historical Trees that was one visited by Jorge Luis Borges.  Since 1967 he has lived in Buenos Aires.  He is a writer of immense productivity, having written over sixty novels in addition to translations and works of criticism.  Only four of his works are currently in print in English, which makes it difficult to evaluate the totality of his output except on the principle of the iceberg: there’s a lot more under the water than what we can see. Roberto Bolaño called him the “one contemporary writer who defies classification,” but Anglophone readers will naturally tend to group him in the loose circle of writers who seem to move in Bolanño’s general orbit.  Besides Aira, this informal Bolaño-kreis would include the Salvadorean writer Horacio Castellanos Moya and the Catalan Enrique Vila-Matas.  But while the links between these two and Bolaño are reasonably clear – Moya shares his fascination with urban violence and the sinister underside of Latin American politics, and Vila-Matas his interest in creating a fully recursive literature – the connection to Aira is harder to specify. Aira considers himself an experimental novelist.  His working method relies on internal momentum, using what he calls the “continuum” or the “constant flight forward.  This procedure allows him to overcome self-censorship and the burdens of traditional form.  He writes a page or two a day, without revising or going backward until the book assumes its desired shape.  This technique results in strange, brief novels which oscillate between the mundane and the fantastic multiple times over their short spans.  The four available in English are works of compression, detail and mystery in which tightly controlled surfaces of prose are deployed in the service of haphazard curlicues of plot.  In fact, it might be easier to treat the novels like ballads and summarize them along the lines of Harry Smith’s liner notes to the Anthology of American Folk Music: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter – Savage Indians and facial trauma await an artist in the pampas. How I Became a Nun – Poisoned ice cream and illiteracy complicate a girl/boy’s first year of school. Ghosts – Nudist specters urge a teenage girl to join them for a New Year’s Eve feast. The Literary Conference – Pirate treasure helps poor writer clone an army out of Carlos Fuentes. Of course, this doesn’t really do justice either to the books’ intricacy or to their wildness.  But that’s all right, because plot is always a secondary concern in Aira.  His novels are always about something in addition to themselves. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Aira’s masterpiece, is on the surface just what its title says it is: the story of a brief episode which marked a turning point in the career of the real-life German artist Johann Moritz Rugendas.  Rugendas’ specialty was a now-forgotten branch of landscape painting propagated by Alexander von Humboldt and called the “physiognomy of nature,” which aimed to document the infinite forms of nature and resolve these into a discrete number of primary types.  Following Humboldt’s advice, Rugendas comes to the New World in order to find landscapes worthy of his brush.  The novel picks up in the middle of his travels across the continent, narrating a trip from Santiago to Buenos Aires which has to be cut short by a gruesome accident. Over the course of its eighty-seven pages, Episode exposes readers to a Baedeker’s-worth of scenic spectacle and local color: hallucinatory vegetation, snow-capped peaks, lightning storms, Indian raids and endless plains.  The effect of all this detail and incident on such a small canvas is vertiginous, like reading an epic poem etched on a grain of sand. I’m making the novel sounds like something by a Latin American Larry McMurtry, but Aira’s method is closer to that of a miniaturist than a painter of history.  Telling the story through Rugendas’ eyes, Aira’s prose acquires a rare intensity of vision.  Here he is describing one of the immense carts used for hauling loads across the pampas: Because they had only two wheels (that was their peculiarity), they tipped back when unloaded and their shafts pointed up at the sky, at an angle of forty-five degrees.  The ends of the shafts seemed to disappear among the clouds; their length can be deduced from the fact that they could be used to hitch ten teams of oxen.  The sturdy planks were reinforced to bear immense loads; whole houses, on occasion, complete with furniture and inhabitants.  The wheels were like fairground Ferris wheels, made entirely of carob wood, with spokes as thick as roof-beams and bronze hubs at the center, laden with pints of grease. I love those upturned shafts, which turn the humble cart into a Jacob’s ladder bridging earth and heaven, while the carob-wood wheels and bronze hubs call to mind something between a lumberyard appliance and a Viking trousseau.  Looking at the cart, Rugendas feels compelled to follow it across the plains: “He felt it would be like traveling in time: proceeding rapidly on horseback along the same route, they would catch up with carts that had set off in other geological eras, perhaps even before the inconceivable beginning of the universe.” As the novel moves forward, Rugendas, and Aira through him, comes closer and closer to an ideal of art as unmediated vision.  The cost is considerable.  Rugendas’ accident leaves him with a grotesquely deformed face and prone to terrible migraines, which he treats with tinctures of opium.  It also intensifies his ability to see: “He had never seen better in his life.  In the depths of that mantled night the pinpricks of his pupils woke him to the bright day’s panorama.  And powdered poppy extract, a concentrated form of the analgesic, provided sleep enough for ten reawakenings per second.”  By the end Rugendas is something not quite human, a “waking nightmare,” the star of a horror film whose monster is the Emersonian eyeball. Ghosts shares Episode’s preoccupation with the visible world, if in a less frenzied key.  The entire action takes place over the course of a single day, New Year’s Eve, in and around a Buenos Aires construction site.  The night watchman, a Chilean immigrant, and his family live in the unfinished building as squatters.  The father, Raúl, is a good worker, but a bit of a drunkard.  His wife, Elisa, is a levelheaded housewife, “that anomaly, not nearly as rare as is often supposed: a mother immune to the terrifying fantasy of losing her children in a crowd.”  Their daughter, Patri, quiet but philosophically “frivolous,” spends the day wandering through the empty structure.  All of them see the ghosts which haunt it: portly naked men covered in fine cement dust whose members stretch like accordions.  The ghosts float between floors and sit on the satellite dishes “on which no bird would have dared to perch.”  Raúl uses them to refrigerate his wine; inserting a bottle into the ghosts’ thorax not only cools the wine, but also transmutes it into an “exquisite, matured cabernet sauvignon.”  Elisa does her best to ignore them.  But Patri is drawn to them by a strange attraction, and they to her, swarming around her head in a “luminous helix.”  Toward evening, they invite her to their midnight feast, though without mentioning the price of admission. Between hauntings, Ghosts is filled with Aira’s beautifully precise observation of the texture of everyday life.  Most of the novel is occupied with the description of a workday, the preparations for a lunch, the problem of getting change in a grocery store, the difference between Chilean and Argentinean hair styles, laundry.  Elisa uses an inordinate amount of bleach in her washing, with the result that her family’s clothes “were so faded and had that threadbare look, humble and worn, yet beautifully so.  Even if an article of clothing was new, or brightly colored when she bought it, for the very first wash (a night-long soak in bleach) it took on the whitish, delicate and somehow aristocratic appearance that distinguished the clothes of the Viñas family.”  Viewed from this close, ordinary existence opens out to other dimensions.  Aira is a master at pivoting between the mundane and metaphysical.  In the middle of Ghosts, Patri takes a nap during the siesta and dreams of her unfinished building.  Her dream turns into a disquisition on the problem of the unbuilt in the arts, on the philosophical underpinnings of architecture in different cultures, and finally, a blueprint for Aira’s brand of literature, “an art in which the limitations of reality would be minimized, in which the made and the unmade would be indistinct, an art that would be instantaneously real, without ghosts.” How I Became a Nun begins with a cone of poisoned ice cream, part of a wave of lethal contaminations which was “sweeping Argentina and the neighboring countries that year.”  Despite appearances, it is another attempt by Aira to create a literature of unmediated experience. This is a quest which runs through all of his work.  Near the end of Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Rugendas experiences something like it with regard to the visible world while in the grip of an opium trance:  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.  Mutatis mutandis, the same thing happens with a painter and the visible world…. What the world was saying was the world….Reality was becoming immediate, like a novel.”  Aira’s strange framing conceits work like the inverse of Barthes’ reality effect. Grounding his novels in the extraordinary gives him the space to tunnel into the everyday world, Francis Ponge by way of Kobo Abe. How I Became a Nun is a novel about childhood.  It also contains one of the best sentences and the worst pun in recent literature.  The sentence is an unprovable conjecture about semantic limits of sign language: “In the language of gestures, the dwarf must be unsayable.”  For the pun, you’ll have to read the book to the end.  After the poisoning, it settles into an episodic narrative about a year in the life of a child, a girl named César Aira, whom the world seems to regard as a boy.  Very little is made of this ambiguity.  Even less is made of the vampire plague which pops up in the background. For the most part, little César’s childhood is fairly normal.  After the second chapter, César’s father is in jail and her mother struggles to provide for the family, but otherwise he/she undergoes the usual adventures of being a seven-year old: learning to read, making a friend, listening to the radio, playing make believe.  Aira has a gift for inhabiting the particular logic of children, with its excess of thought without sense to guide it.  César alternately under- and overreacts to events, throws fits, tells strange, pointless lies, misunderstands wholes sets of concepts.  She arrives in school after a three month absence and doesn’t know how to read.  The process appears to her as an “abstract mimicry,” a “recondite algebra in which the teachers specialized for reasons that were none of my concern.”  Visiting her father in prison she hides for a day and a night, fantasizing about the search provoked by her disappearance.  Asked by a doctor about her symptoms while recuperating in the hospital, César launches into a typically elaborate dishonesty: An urge, a whim or a manic obsession that not even I could explain impelled me to sabotage the doctor’s work, to trick him.  I pretended to be stupid…I must have thought the opportunity was too good to waste.  I could be as stupid as I liked, with impunity.  But it wasn’t simply a matter of passive resistance.  Doing nothing at all was too haphazard, because sometimes nothing can be the right response, and I was determined not to let chance determine my fate.  So even though I could have left his questions unanswered, I took the trouble to answer them.  I lied.  I said the opposite of the truth, or the opposite of what seemed truest to me. This passage gives me a pang of recognition.  César’s convoluted rationales recall the dimly remembered reasons behind various childhood decisions, like building a fort and then destroying it to keep it from being destroyed, or hiding for hours among the women’s wear racks in a Value City in hopes of raising an alarm.  In its own way, it’s a triumph of psychological realism.  Certainly it’s a tremendous relief after years of American fiction in which are children are confined to the axis of angel, savant and thug. In The Literary Conference, the most recent and most antic of his novels to appear in English, Aira is once again his own protagonist.  This time he is an adult, and male, an author of middling renown and a struggling translator.  He is also a master of genetics and genius at solving nautical puzzles, a skill which he uses in the prologue to raise an ancient treasure from the Venezuelan seafloor.  Still, César is afflicted by the same mental hyperactivity that plagued him in How I Became a Nun: “Everything is a metaphor in the hyperkinetic microscope of my psyche, everything is instead of something else.” This torrent makes it hard for him to unwind.  In between the raising of the treasure and the fulfillment of his diabolical plan for world domination (or Latin American literary respectability), he takes a brief vacation at a literary conference, but he can’t relax, distracted by the “thousands of tiny incidents, all full of meaning” that happen “while nothing was happening.”  At one point he tries to measure the velocity of his thoughts: I am trying a method of my own invention: I shoot a perfectly empty thought through all the others, and because it has no content of its own, it reveals the furtive outlines – which are stable to the empty one – of the contents of the others.  That retrograde cloned mini-man, the Speedometer, is my companion on solitary walks and the only one who knows all my secrets. He could be talking about his own work as a writer.  Everything in Aira has that Mad Scientist feel to it.  His novels are eccentric clones of reality, where the lights are brighter, the picture is sharper and everything happens at the speed of thought.
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