Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Inspires Sensitive Travel

Jungle scene
Jungle scene

Destination: Africa

Book: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

A Guest Post by Craig Martin

I read voraciously and used to read even more. Four books a week seems slow when I include the audiobooks that accompany me on countless hours of train and plane travel. But when I’m asked to talk about a book that has motivated me to visit a place or to start traveling, I’m somewhat at a loss.
One book that’s heavily influenced my view of the world is Joseph Conrad’s [amazon_link id=”161293045X” target=”_blank” ]Heart of Darkness [/amazon_link], made into the film [amazon_link id=”B003UESJJC” target=”_blank” ]Apocalypse Now[/amazon_link] by director Francis Ford Coppola. In Heart of Darkness, the protagonist Marlow recounts a journey from Britain deep into the Congo. It’s a story of a journey, of imperialism and of the madness that lurks just behind the thin walls of sanity.

It’s tough reading at times, with long sentences bursting with imagery and hints through a sharp use of vocabulary and tone. It rewards, if you can call it that, with a slow, meandering journey up a river and an ending that doesn’t really satisfy the readers’ narrative impulses. For that, I love it.

Critic Chinua Achebe infamously called Heart of Darkness an inveterate piece of racism as it uses the African people and landscape as nothing more than a foil for European protagonists; the dehumanised indigenous characters are nothing but backdrop. This resonates with my own post-colonial Pakeha* reading and is an urgent call to action for travelers and writers to move beyond stereotypes, stop casting ourselves as the heroes of our stories and start to uncover the threads of narrative we travel through.

In the end, Heart of Darkness is a book that has inspired me to stretch my viewpoint, to act compassionately for social justice, to travel. Otherwise, we may well end up in a culture as happily blinded to our societal prejudices as Conrad was.

Craig Martin
Craig Martin

Craig Martin is the co-publisher of the Indie Travel Podcast and Indie Travel Podcast Magazine. Along with Victorian literature, he enjoys self-reflective movies and the better sort of modern Fantasy novels.

* Pakeha is a term used to describe the non-Maori peoples of New Zealand, especially those of European descent.

Thank you so much, Craig, for taking time to do this. For those of you who haven’t read about Craig and Linda Martin on their website (which I recommend you do as soon as you have left a comment below), Craig and his wife live on the road, so making a contribution like this, in addition to their blogging and publishing a magazine keeps them busy indeed. And thanks also, for adding the word pakeha to my vocabulary.

I would like to clarify one thing for those who are more familiar with the movie Apocalypse Now than with the novel, Heart of Darkness. Coppola very loosely based his film on the Conrad novel, which, as Craig says, is set in Africa as opposed to the Vietnam setting of the movie.

Craig’s point is a very good one. As travelers we need to constantly redevelop the sensitivity to realize when we are influenced by stereotypes and find ways to move beyond them.  Have you found other books that help you do that? Please let us know in the comment section.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

7 thoughts on “Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Inspires Sensitive Travel

  1. I think its bold of you to call out what is so rampant in the west- unapologetic ethnocentrism. Heart of Darkness has been on my list for a while now. I’m a lover of fantasy/sci-fi escapism (cheap fantasy!) but I always try to splice in some more classic lit when I travel, too. HoD will definately be on my next trip.

    Isn’t it amazing how much one reads while traveling; I think it’s quite nice. I think I read more on my 6 month rtw journey than in my whole life combined.

    blakesjourney / tbd
    .-= Blakesjourney´s last blog ..Costa Rica Video: Fortuna Tour and Tico Ninjas =-.

  2. @ Vera Thanks for giving me the opportunity; and adding the clarification. There’s a great documentary called Hearts of Darkness which follows the Coppola family during their filming and charts their own descent into near ruin — financial and emotional.

    @ JessieV It’s well worth a read and, like most of Conrad’s books, quite short! It’s available on Librivox, but I do recommend reading it because of the density of language. For a second language speaker, he had an extraordinary vocabulary.

  3. I love learning new things and this brief bit added two things to my repertoire. The disconnect between Conrad’s book about Africa and Coppola’s movie about Vietnam were unknown to me as I had neither read the book or seen the movie. And of course the word Pakena.

  4. bravo, craig! i avoided this book, to be honest, because i couldn’t deal with the racism, etc. but now i think i may delve in. one of the things that is so important to understanding other cultures is seeing them from a local POV. i’d much rather read chinua achebe (and have).
    .-= jessiev´s last blog ..Craigievar Castle’s new face unveiled =-.

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