Eight Feet in the Andes, by Dervla Murphy

>> Wednesday, August 13, 2014

TITLE: Eight Feet in the Andes: Travels With a Mule From Cajamarca to Cuzco
AUTHOR: Dervla Murphy

PAGES: 293

SETTING: Early 80s Peru
TYPE: Travel

The eight feet referenced in the title belong to Dervla Murphy, her nine-year-old daughter, and an elegant mule, who together clambered the length of Peru, from Cajamarca near the border with Ecuador, to Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital—traveling over 1,300 miles in high altitudes. Despite extreme discomfort and occasional danger, mother and daughter, a formidable duo, were unflagging in their sympathetic response to the perilous beauty and impoverished people of the Andes.

This was the August book for my book club. It's a travel book and recounts a trip in the Peruvian Andes that Murphy undertook with her 9-year-old daughter and a very handsome mule called Juana in the early 1980s. They start in the North of the country and go all the way to Cuzco, clambering up and down mountains, staying away from the few motor roads and struggling to find food to buy in tiny hamlets that are even more desperately impoverished than they'd expected.

I read a bit under half the book and abandoned it. I don't usually do that with book club books, but it was just so, so boring, and I couldn't see it changing at all. It's the story of what sounds like a great trip, but it's not a great book. Murphy's writing is not very good, but that's not the main problem. The main problem is that what I want from a travel book is to travel with an interesting person who tells good stories, and I didn't get that.

I don't know if Murphy is an interesting person. I don't know her at all, even after reading 130 pages of her book. We get some of her opinions about what she's seeing (which were not unproblematic), but nothing about who she is as a person. By the time I gave up, I felt I knew more about the inner life of Juana the Mule than about Dervla Murphy's. All I knew was that she's an incredibly tough, no nonsense lady, but even that hid as much as it revealed. I mean, at the beginning, she basically walks for days with a nail sticking out inside of her boot and making her foot bleed. She mentions a couple of times that she needs to find a cobbler, but that's it. Is she worried? In pain? Angry that the stupid makers of this shoddy boot are ruining this trip she's been planning for so long? I had absolutely no idea. Her daughter Rachel is an enigma as well. Murphy often quotes things Rachel said or wrote in her diary, but those just didn't ring true. The diary entries, especially, sounded too, too precious, with their careful misspellings.

As for stories... forget about it. Murphy describes everything she sees and does, and it's midly interesting when she and her daughter interact with people. Mostly, though, it's "we left camp at 8.15, went up this mountain, took this path, had to double back, the ground was difficult to walk on". Very tedious. I think part of the problem is that the book is written as a diary, with one entry for each day. I think it might have worked better if she hadn't had to write a full-sized account every day and just concentrated on the interesting bit and summarised the daily grind.

I mentioned her opinions above. The book was originally published in 1983 and it's very dated. Murphy is quite patronising in some of her thoughts about the native Peruvians, and some of her general opinions are just startling, like when she says, just in passing, about a particular village: "It certainly isn't ravaged by disease, violence, drunkenness and homosexuality, as so many of the larger settlements have been in the past."Uhm.. ok.

Finally, I got really annoyed by how bad the Spanish was. If you're going to publish a book about travelling in Peru, at least get your Spanish checked. It's fine if it's "I said X" and X is wrong, because hey, if your Spanish was not great, you would have said some things wrong. My problem was with things in the descriptions, like her referring to a river as the Río Negra quite a few times ('río' is masculine, so it would be "Río Negro", "Black River").

Anyway, not a success. I might be completely off-base here, but I don't get the feeling Murphy is principally a writer, in the sense of someone for whom the writing comes before the travelling. With my favourite travel authors, I get the feeling they would write about anything, and their travelling just provides them with raw material. Here there was something of a grudging quality to the writing, as if it was only a means to an end, and that end was financing the travel. Like I said, I might be wrong, but that was the vibe I got.



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