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Comparison of Magical Realism and Surrealism

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Published: Mon, 26 Feb 2018

The comparison between the magical realism and the surrealism

The research provides the comparison between the magical realism of South America and the surrealism of Europe, with a particular reference to One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Anos de Soledad) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) by Franz Kafka.

Applying to the comparative and historical theoretical approaches, the paper reveals both similarities and differences of two literary movements of the twentieth century. The received findings demonstrate that the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez is based on the unity of reality and fantasy, while the surrealism of Kafka deals with the harmony between dreams and rationality, or, applying to Freudian psychoanalysis, between the conscious and the unconscious. In this regard, some results of the research reflect the previous analyses of Kafka and Marquez, while other findings provide some new interpretations of Kafka’s surrealism and Marquez’s magical realism. 

1 Statement of the problem

Although the magical realism and the surrealism are two literary movements that were formed in different parts of the world, they have more similarities than differences. This is especially obvious on the examples of One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Anos de Soledad) written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) written by Franz Kafka. Despite the fact that The Metamorphosis belongs to the genre of the surrealism, it is sometimes attributed to the genre of the magical realism; the same regards Marquez’s masterpiece.

However, while the surrealism is aimed at the depiction of superior reality with the help of such tools as automatism, fantasy and mesmerism, the magical realism describes the real world in a combination with a fantastic realm. Overall, both the surrealism and the magical realism appeared as the revolutionary movements that challenged the civilised reality and the crucial role of rationality, considerably influencing the formation of new consciousness in South America and Europe in the twentieth century.

2 Introduction

Literature of the twentieth century is characterised by the formation of various movements that reflected the essence of a rather contradictory and complex era, when different social, political, cultural and individual aspects emerged on a scene. Unquestionably, every literary movement made an attempt to implement its own ways of expression, forms, symbols and the treatment of certain crucial issues. However, after the era of rationality and in the threshold of Two World Wars, many writers and poets began to challenge pure reason, searching for the ways to combine reality with fantasy.

In this regard, the magical realism and the surrealism are literary movements of that period, which oppose the conventional portrayal of reality and produce their own understanding of human existence. Thus, two movements reveal many common features and characteristics, especially the similar ways of presenting and interpreting reality; however, the magical realism and the surrealism are not identical genres.

The magical realism overcomes the depressive and gloomy nature of the realism, trying to evoke the belief in supernatural things and simultaneously revealing the essence of reality. Applying to different perspectives and new ways of expression, the magical realism demonstrates the unusual world of Latin America torn between civilisation and primitive state, modernity and antiquity, social conflicts and cultural unity. The magical realism challenges rationality, puts questions and leads readers to fantastic realms.

The surrealism is a more formal genre than the magical realism; the surrealism bases its ideas on a certain ideology, while the magical realism forms its concepts on the logic of imagination, presenting a unique universe. However, similar to the magical realism, the surrealism is in search of combining contradictory juxtapositions, producing profound implications and complex ideas of reality. On the other hand, the surrealism strives for freedom, but this struggle is rather delicate; it does not maintain the idea of political or social changes, but rather claims for psychological changes. 

Thus, the purpose of this research is to compare the magical realism of South America and the surrealism of Europe on the examples of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. Evaluating the similarities and differences of these literary trends, the analysis is divided into several parts. Starting with a statement of the problem, which points at the major idea of the conducted research, the paper goes on with some social, political and cultural aspects of the magical realism and the surrealism. Chapter 3 presents a general overview of certain critical sources, which provide their interpretations of Marquez’s and Kafka’s literary works.

The theoretical methods applied for the analysis are discussed in the further section. Chapter 5 provides a detailed comparison between the defined works of Marquez and Kafka, paying a particular attention to the principal elements of the magical realism and the surrealism. The summarisation of the received findings is conducted in the Conclusions Chapter, while the final chapter reveals the limitations of the research and gives certain suggestions for further analyses of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka. 

3 Review of the literature

As the literary works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Franz Kafka belong to rather complex genres of the surrealism and the magical realism, which are characterised by the unity of contradictory elements, critics provide different interpretations of these authors. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis has been analysed by feminists, psychoanalysts, postmodernists, structuralists, Marxists and other scholars who utilised various approaches in the process of their research. Gavriel Ben-Ephraim points at the fact that “Kafka’s The Metamorphosis validates contradictory reading that cancels coherent interpretation”1, while Harold Bloom maintains the similar viewpoint.

As the researcher claims, “my working principle in reading Kafka is to evade interpretation, which only means that what most needs and demands interpretation in Kafka’s writing is its perversely deliberate evasion of interpretation”2. William Madden draws a parallel between Kafka and the principal character of The Metamorphosis, revealing many autobiographical elements in the narration and stating that “it is literally a true account of a man, life, and the cosmos”3.
Ralph Friedman expresses the viewpoint that “it is best to approach Kafka as a writer of realistic fiction… [and that] symbolism must be taken into account, but it is not the master key of Kafka’s work”4. Evaluating the role of Kafka in worldwide literature, Friedman states that “Kafka went his own way… No great artist can be caught in the categories set up by literary historians”5. Despite various interpretations of Marquez’s work One Hundred Years of Solitude, many critics agree in opinion that Marquez’s magical realism demonstrates profound social, historical, cultural and political contexts. According to Stephen Minta, Marquez is “inevitably concerned with the whole history of his country and continent, and, both as a writer of novels and as a journalist, he has constantly laid stress on the importance of developing alternative sources of history”6. Marquez’s researcher Regina Janes points out that “his [Marquez’s] fellow novelists recognised in the novel a brilliant evocation of many of their own concerns: a ‘total novel’ that treated Latin America socially, historically, politically, mythically, and epically”7.

In fact, totality of One Hundred Years of Solitude is achieved through the unity of history and society; although Marquez seems to uncover the history of his region, he simultaneously reveals the history of Latin America, starting with the primordial times and ending with the establishment of Western imperialism. Anne Marie Taylor points at the fact that Gabriel Garcia Marquez treats history from two different perspectives; on the one hand, it is presented as a crucial tool for the explanation of the past, while, on the other hand, it is an integral part of the protagonists’ experience.

According to Taylor, the characters of Marquez’s narration “see the past in general as part of the circular pattern of recurring events and in particular, as filled with negative personal experiences which they do everything possible to repress”8. Despite the variety of interpretations of Marquez’s and Kafka’s works, the further analysis makes an attempt to overcome the existing contradictions and compare One Hundred Years of Solitude with The Metamorphosis, presenting a profound research of the magical realism and the surrealism. 

4 Research methodology

The research utilises two theoretical methods – a comparative approach and a historical approach, which provide an opportunity to compare the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the surrealism of Franz Kafka. The aim of the comparative approach is to define both similarities and differences of the discussed literary movements, revealing unique features of each trend and of each literary work. Simultaneously, this approach uncovers a close connection between a literary work and such sciences as psychology or philosophy.

However, due to some limitations of the comparative approach, the paper also applies to the historical approach to overcome a simple analysis of differences and similarities and demonstrate interpretations of Marquez’s and Kafka’s works through the historical perspective, as every literary source is inseparably connected with history. The historical approach takes into account historical periods when certain literary texts are written; the received results are further applied to the analysed works that reflect some common features of a particular epoch.

Applying to an interpretative perspective, this approach evaluates social, cultural, and political changes that influenced certain aspects of literature9. In addition, the historical approach analyses forms, styles and literary tools of specific literary works, producing various valid interpretations of fiction. According to such historians as Raymond Williams, Steven Zwicker, Kevin Sharpe, and Geoffrey Hughes, the historical analysis of language in a literary work is crucial for the research of political, cultural and social changes10.

5 Discussion

5.1. The definitions of the magical realism and the surrealism

The ‘magical realism’ as a notion belongs to a famous German critic Franz Roh who applied this particular term to the reality created by artists; according to Roh, the magical realism “employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquillity of simple and ingenuous things”11. Although the magical realism is a comparatively novel literary movement, some elements of this genre can be found in the works of such famous writers as Honoré de Balzac, Nikolay Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, Guy de Maupassant, Italo Calvino, Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky.

However, in South America the concept of “magical realism” was successfully utilised in literature since 1940s to reveal the realistic outlook of American nation. As a challenge to post-colonialism and the prevalence of European cultural values in various countries of South America, some writers created literary works that began to reflect a definitely new vision of reality that was later regarded as the ‘magical realism’.

Due to the fact that South America was exposed to various cultural, social and political conflicts in the nineteenth-twentieth centuries, the magical realism successfully demonstrated the existing complexities of that particular period. In this regard, the magical realism is based on the harmony of contradictory aspects, such as past and present, reason and emotions, reality and unreality. Thus, on the one hand, this literary trend accepts reality, while, on the other hand, it also accepts supernatural elements as an integral part of this reality12.

Unlike the fantastic literary genre, where the created world differs from the real world, the setting in the magical realism is created within the real contemporary world, depicting modern people and social realm, although through the fantastic perspective. According to the historical approach, this combination of reality and fantasy can be explained by the survival of Indian culture within European civilisation. In view of this combination, the magical realism of South America is characterised by such features as irony, hybridity, restraint and the balance between natural and supernatural. As for irony, authors of the magical realism utilise irony to preserve realism within their fantastic contexts; however, their fantasy is so real that is almost impossible to separate the realm of fantasy from the realm of reality.

As the narrators or the characters turn to fantasy, their reality is changed, and these protagonists no longer belong to a particular social class; rather they belong to the realm of magical reality, which constitutes their own lives. Hybridity is one of the most important features of the magical realism, as it challenges the traditional realistic portrayal, demonstrating that reality is usually more complex than it is presented in the majority of literary works. In other words, reality is exposed to constant changes and mixtures, revealing the equilibrium between two extremes.

Restraint and the balance between natural and supernatural are closely connected with the previous features; writers of the magical realism apply to these literary techniques to prove that any supernatural elements are normal for the protagonists who live within the magical reality. In addition, the magical realism demonstrates various fantastic components that seem rather logical, although this logic is not clarified within the narration. The best representative of the Southern American magical realism is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a famous Colombian writer, although there are other writers of the magical realism, such as Isabel Allende, Toni Morrison, Ernst Junger, Ben Okri, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Rulfo and Alejo Carpentier. For instance, The Famished Road by Ben Okri reflects such features of the magical realism as hybridity and restraint, which are demonstrated through the principal characters and the portrayal of social reality.

Alejo Carpentier is a South American writer who is known for the creation of the notion ‘marvellous reality’ that defines the literature of new writers after the Second World War. Similar to the magical realism, the surrealism also deals with two realms, but these realms are of different nature. In particular, the surrealism is aimed at observing exterior reality and interior reality in their unity; in fact, it is difficult to achieve the unity of two realms, as one reality is social, while another reality is individual.

The surrealism as a literary movement was created in the twentieth century and became spread in Europe after the First World War. Originating from the Dada movement, the surrealism in literature is based on positivism, rather than on negativism, although it challenges the traditional understanding of art. In the period of immense disappointment caused by the war, the surrealists made attempts to renew the lost culture and art, adhering to realism and truthfulness of expression. For Andre Breton, the author of The Surrealist Manifesto and the founder of the movement in 1924, the surrealism is expressed in the balance between the unconscious and conscious spheres; in this regard, dreams and rationality constitute a perfect reality in surrealistic literary works.

Thus, the surrealism reflects Freud’s psychological theories on the conscious and the unconscious, especially the psychoanalyst’s ideas of the id and the ego; it also rejects the dominance of traditions and reason over imagination. In this context, both the surrealism and the magical realism stress the importance of dreams, treating fantasy as a crucial and serious aspect of reality.

However, writers and poets of the surrealism pay much attention to intricate combinations of words, but not to the meanings of these words, complicating their literary pieces and adhering to mysticism of primitive societies. Some famous European surrealist authors and poets are Robert Desnos, Louis Aragon, Paul Eluard, Philippe Soupault, Tristan Tzara, Hugo Ball and Jean Cocteau who considerably maintain the ideas of pure primitivism, but one of the most outstanding writers of the surrealism is certainly Franz Kafka, whose major short stories and novels were published only after his death.

Overall, both the magical realism and the surrealism make attempts to find supernatural in normal things and present reality through a new vision. As a result, literary pieces of the surrealism and the magical realism are characterised by the implementation of new experimental forms, styles, themes and ways of expression, changing the traditional interpretation of fantastic and real, ironic and dramatic. In addition to these common features, the surrealism points at the fact that reality can be understood only through the unconscious. According to such psychologists as Freud and Carl Jung, myths and legends reveal the common unconscious of a particular community; that is why many surrealist writers utilise myths for better portrayal of their characters.

Simultaneously, myths in the surrealism appear as an implicit opposition to Western cultural traditions and way of thinking. For Freud, civilisation deprives people of their primordial nature, while myths return societies to their cultural roots and their true identity. In this regard, writers of the surrealism usually apply to the key feature of the movement – automatism, with the help of which they try to reveal the unconscious. Automatism provides the surrealists with an opportunity to express their thoughts and ideas in a freely manner. 

5.2. The comparison between the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the surrealism of Franz Kafka

Various elements of the magical realism are utilised in the work One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Anos de Soledad) written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, where the writer mixes reality and fancy, overcoming profound differences between two realms. Above all, this mixing of spheres is expressed through the narrative tone of Marquez’s literary masterpiece. Applying to a serious and untouched tone, Gabriel Garcia Marquez manages to implicitly transform mystical and unreal events into real occurrences. The tone of his portrayal is so genuine that the whole narration seems natural, while combining the most controversial things. As the writer acknowledges, “the key to writing One Hundred Years of Solitude was the idea of saying incredible things with a completely unperturbed face”13.

Marquez masterfully treats mystical elements, presenting them as an uncompromising truth. For instance, the priest, one of the novel’s characters, demonstrates the phenomenon of levitation that he performs with the help of chocolate; however, the protagonist regards this phenomenon as a normal act of God, claiming that “now we shall witness an undeniable proof of the infinite power of God”14. Thus, Marquez introduces the bizarre elements into his fantastic realm so unnoticeably that the readers accept them as natural things of their world. Introducing such supernatural elements as flying objects, carnivalesque and levitation, Marquez also applies to irony, symbolism and narrative distance. But the atmosphere of domesticity provides Marquez with an opportunity to gradually turn from fantasy to reality; in this regard, the introduction of Ursula into the narration serves this particular purpose.

As Ricardo Gullon points out, “Ursula’s function is to impregnate the fictional space with everybody realities so that the marvellous may enter it smoothly”15. Other episodes of Marquez narration also demonstrate the writer’s skilful ability to switch from the supernatural to the real portrayal. This is especially vivid in the episode that describes Jose Arcadio’s death: “A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces… and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Ursula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread”16.

Despite its unusual and mystical portrayal, the death of Arcadio is perceived as real due to the precise style of expression and the description of daily life. As in the real world, some people in Marquez’s novel die, while other characters continue to lead their usual existence. Maintaining the similar tone for the portrayal of real and unreal things, Marquez “never allows it to become evident, by interjection or amazement, that there may be a substantial difference between the extraordinary and the commonplace”17. The writer makes no attempt to question any supernatural elements or events; instead Marquez treats mysterious and real things in the similar way, revealing their mutual coexistence. For instance, a flying carpet is a normal phenomenon for the citizens of Macondo, it is the reality that evokes no doubts.

As Marquez claims, “this time, along with many other artifices, they [the gypsies] brought a flying carpet. But they did not offer it as a fundamental contribution to the development of transport, rather as an object of recreation”18. Applying to such exaggerated portrayals of people and things, Marquez creates an atmosphere of reality that seems logical and natural. On the other hand, such portrayals allow Marquez to introduce the comic elements into the narration; utilising certain hyperboles, the writer at the same time presents them as reasonable.

In his portrayal of Melquiades, Marquez states that “He was a fugitive from all the plagues and catastrophes that had ever lashed mankind… But in spite of his immense wisdom and his mysterious breadth, he had a human burden, an earthly condition that kept him involved in the small problems of daily life”19. Although this exaggeration seems unreal for the modern world, it is absolutely normal for the fictitious world created by Marquez. The same regards other hyperboles, such as “it rained for four years, eleven months, and two days”20. Despite the fact that this hyperbole contradicts the existing reality, its accurate definition reveals the rigour of the catastrophe and implicitly points at the probable consequences of the occurred incident.

Thus, Marquez’s principal narrative tool is the mixture of fantasy and exaggeration presented through the fictitious reality, as is especially obvious in the following utterance: “The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point”21. However, despite its fantastic elements and its fictional setting in the place of Macondo, One Hundred Years of Solitude reveals the true historical past of Columbia and the ironical social reality.

As history is inseparably connected with culture, Marquez’s work demonstrates a profound historico-cultural context. Simultaneously, One Hundred Years of Solitude reflects a considerable impact of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis on the creative work of Marquez. While Kafka renovates the fable, adjusting it to the contemporary daily life, Marquez puts the fable within the strange, but familiar modern environment. In The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung) Franz Kafka portrays a person who leads a life created by his family and society, finally transforming into an insect.

In his surrealistic portrayal Kafka applies to symbolism, similar to Marquez, to demonstrate person’s alienation in the cruel reality and reveal that this reality is not exposed to any logic. Suffering from the constant domination of his father, Kafka turns to an implicit way of expression to oppose this terrifying control. In this regard, Kafka’s surrealism is expressed in the portrayal of mysterious and spiritual things through the bureaucratic perspective; while Marquez’s magical realism is revealed through the fictitious romanticism that uncovers real social and historical events of South America.

Like Marquez, Kafka bases The Metamorphosis on contradictions and absurdity, on the extremes of reality and fantasy; however, his manner of expression is gentle and inconsequent. At the same time, Kafka, similar to the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, pay much attention to the details, intensifying the narration. On the other hand, while Marquez combines seriousness with irony in his interpretation of the occurred events, Kafka uncovers his story through a philosophical perspective. Every thought or dream in Kafka’s narration evokes certain reflections and emotions in readers; for instance, the following expressions reveal father’s attitude towards his son, as Gregor changes into a vermin: “His father knotted his fist with a fierce expression on his face as if he meant to knock Gregor back into his room”22 or “at any moment the stick in his father’s hand might hit him a fatal blow on the back or on the head”23.

However, despite the fact that Kafka’s critics overlook subtle irony in The Metamorphosis, the whole narration demonstrates profound irony, as the writer makes an attempt to reveal that person’s life is a temporary existence that is under the control of fate. In this regard, the real meaning of life is to preserve his/her own identity under the pressure of society and family, but not to attain wealth or high social position. Maintaining a rather objective viewpoint, the writer creates a sole protagonist Gregor Samsa who embodies Kafka’s own self and his own existence; thus Kafka’s story is autobiographic. For instance, at the beginning of the story Kafka provides the following description: “He [Gregor] was lying on his hard, as it were armor-plated, back and when he lifted his head a little he could see his dome-like belly divided into stiff arched segments”24.

The writer applies to such portrayals throughout the narration, implicitly revealing his own suffering and intensifying realism of his descriptions. As Kafka once claims to Felice Bauer, “I was simply too miserable to get out of bed… I’ll write you again today, even though I still have to run around a lot and shall write down a short story that occurred to me during my misery in bed and oppressed me with inmost intensity”25. When Gregor ponders over his job of a travelling seller, he thinks that he has chosen this work, while in reality Gregor does not have a choice in this particular matter, as he works without salary to return the debt of his family.

Kafka also worked as a travelling seller, and he embodied his wish to change his job and his life in the short story. Thus, The Metamorphosis deals with a sudden change; as Gregor transforms into a vermin, his life and his inner self become completely different. Gregor’s change is “the first occurrence in his life over which no one (including he) had any control”26. Despite the negative consequences of this transformation, it “allows [Gregor’s] hidden self to emerge, the self that had been stifled for so many years”27.

In this regard, Kafka’s surrealism stresses the importance of finding one’s self; Gregor’s transformation provides him with an opportunity to receive freedom, thus “in his death likewise he is both extinguished and set free”28. In fact, according to Martin Greenberg, “the first sentence of The Metamorphosis announces Gregor Samsa’s death and the rest of the story is his slow dying”29. In the first instances of his conversion, Gregor is overwhelmed with the questions of daily routine; however, as the protagonist adjusts to his new image, he starts to ponder over the vital issues of existence.

Simultaneously, Gregor is no longer afraid of death, as “his death is a … liberating realisation. Gregor says, “Yes”, to his own death and dies reconciled with himself and with the New World”30. Therefore, Kafka’s symbolism demonstrates his own opposition to society, in which he lives, his opposition to the existing social stereotypes and biases. Gregor’s physical and psychological transformation occurs, because the character is no longer able to withstand his routine life and the pressure of his family.

According to Thorlby, in The Metamorphosis the writer reveals that “man is hopelessly and inappropriately situated in the world as a beetle would be in a human family”31. As a result, Gregor looses his human features, implicitly revealing his reluctance to belong to the human race. As William Madden points out, “In his story, Kafka has undoubtedly exorcised some personal devils, notably his ambivalent feelings towards his father Hermann”32. In view of such interpretation, Kafka’s philosophy is closely connected with psychoanalysis of Freud; similar to other surrealist writers, Kafka, on the example of Gregor, demonstrates a struggle between the unconscious animal instincts and the conscious human reason.

The unconscious receives victory in this struggle, as Gregor completely looses any human features, thus revealing the importance of the unconscious for a human being. On the other hand, Kafka points at the fact that Gregor’s loss of human features occurs only when society and family reject him. As Gregor realises that his own parents are cruel to him, he looses any wish to be a human and dies. According to Corngold, “Gregor’s metamorphosis into a disgusting insect seems to confirm the father’s opinion of his son”33.

The Metamorphosis reveals the destroying impact of father’s behaviour on Kafka’s mentality; throughout the narration Kafka applies to the descriptions of such attitude, like in the following portrayal: “from behind his father gave him a strong push which was literally a deliverance and he flew far into the room, bleeding freely”34.

Kafka’s surrealistic way of expression is rather shocking, as in the following portrayal, “if he [Gregor] tried to bend a leg, it first straightened out; and he finally succeeded in taking charge of it, the other legs meanwhile all kept carrying on, as if emancipated, in extreme and painful agitation”35. But the writer raises crucial issues of existence, revealing that modern society conforms to certain stereotypes, which may destroy a person’s identity and life. The issue of death is also implicitly shown throughout Kafka’s narration, in fact, it is the major theme of The Metamorphosis. Similar to the balance between the realms of the conscious and the unconscious, surrealist writers draw a parallel between life and death.

Kafka’s treatment of death reflects his obsession with death under complex life conditions. As Gregor transforms into a vermin, he starts to realise that all his life is a simple illusion and that all his beliefs are false. The protagonist experiences loneliness and loss, rejection and lack of understanding. As a result, Gregor isolates himself from the rest of the world, and this isolation causes the character’s destruction. In this regard, Gregor Samsa resembles Jose Arcadio Buendia, the character of Marquez’s work One Hundred Years of Solitude, as both Gregor and Jose are destroyed by their isolation.

However, Marquez and Kafka treat the theme of isolation differently; in The Metamorphosis Gregor’s isolation destroys only him, positively influencing all members of his family and uniting them. Before Gregor’s transformation, the Samsas family morally degrades, but Gregor saves them. As Rudolph Binion rightfully points out, “It is beneficent to his family – [Gregor’s] decline revitalizes them – and so by way of his morbid choice, a free and deliberate one in the end, [Gregor] acquires tragic dignity”36. In view of this fact, Gregor is usually compared with Jesus Christ; this allegoric parallel reveals that Kafka’s surreali


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