BooksFriday, February 10, 2017
Forty shades of route
For The Herald
You can go on a great photographic (or just viewing) safari right here in Argentina, traversing epic Route 40 all along the country’s Andean backbone, amid exotic (to big-city dwellers) people and awesome landscapes. Alternatively, you can sit comfortably back and enjoy those sights in the luscious photographs of the present book.
Route 40 is 5,200 kilometres long (almost a third more than the US’s famous Route 66). If you look it up (and disregard bends in the road), it also turns out to be the distance from London to the Middle East.
This is a glossy but compact coffee-table kind of book: about the same size as most paperback offerings, although formatted horizontally, not vertically. At a cost of roughly one quarter more than the average new book, it’s ten times as handsome an offering. And since it’s in both Spanish and English (about the quality of the English, see below), I’d suggest it’s not only good as a treat for oneself. It would also constitute a present with an original angle, both for Argentines who haven’t undertaken this adventure themselves – which is most of them – and for people abroad.
The photos by Alejandro Guyot are of the National Geographic type, meaning that they’re beautiful, and that everything looks alluringly shinier than it seems to in real life. Magnificent clouds scowl down, particularly in the Patagonian stretches, the sun obligingly shines through, at especially becoming angles, and all the reds are impossible scarlets.
The volume is organized into three main sections, namely Patagonia, the central Cuyo region, and the north. There is a map inside the covers, though it’s ineffectual for the very last stretch (or the initial one, depending on direction) near La Quiaca. This is first and foremost a book of photographs, but it also has text – an introduction to each section, leaning more towards well-rendered mood than towards detailed information, and then the captions to the illustrations.
A tail-end part offers additional specifics on the road. Still, it’s clearly not meant as a driving guide to this highway. Route 40 is alternately paved and gravel. In all but one of the photos the gravel seems largely devoid of shattering transversal ruts, but the narrative does single out a couple of stretches as rough. It also grandly proclaims Abra del Acay, at almost 5,000 metres (the altitude has been upped since that part of the book was written) to be the highest highway pass in the world, but that’s nonsense unless one is very strict in one’s definition of what qualifies as a highway.
It would have been helpful if the divergence between some old and newer layouts of the road had been better explained, or one didn’t need to puzzle out what it means that a place is “the darkest in South America.” If you weren’t paying attention when they taught you this in school (?), Qhapac Ñan is the Inca road system.
The English translation could be a lot better, but it could also be a lot worse. One doesn’t need to be much of a nit-picker to find fault with it, although the translators do possess a good stock of idiomatic phraseology. The problems start with confusion between the verbs “lay” and “lie” (trouble that affects some native speakers too). There is clumsy phrasing: “casi en el límite con” becomes “nearby the border with”; “la ruta se hace larga” becomes “the route gets long.”
There’s trouble with the rendering of some everyday Spanish words: “almacén” is not a “wholesale” establishment, but a general store. There’s trouble when an ordinary word has more than one meaning and the wrong one is chosen: “bodega,” as used in the book, means “winery,” not “wine cellar”; “del pueblo Coya” is here meant as “of the Coya community,” not “of Coya town.” There’s even worse trouble with non-everyday words.
But the crucial point is that the English is far from a succession of howlers, such as one sadly finds in many “bilingual” books for tourists. Still, there are two or three that are irresistible. In local parlance, where a river is boxed in by stone walls it’s called a “pasarela”; here it becomes not “a canyon” but “a footbridge.” Darwin’s non-steam ship emerges as “SS” Beagle. (Actually, “Ss”).
Overall, however, readers abroad will get the meaning; and the photos, as mentioned, are a pleasure to sit down to, and may make many readers feel like dashing off to hit that road (if only petrol weren’t so grievously expensive for people who’re definitely not earning at petrol’s allegedly “international levels”).