Hessler and Conrad

From Emdashes:

did pick only one story to read in this issue, Peter Hessler’s “Strange Stones,” a memoir of Peace Corps service in China. Beguiling in structure and emotionally polyvalent, it is my favorite, so far, of Hessler’s many Letters From China. Worthwhile travel writing is a portrait not of a place, but of an apprehending intelligence: one like Hessler’s, that recognizes that in fact, he “hadn’t seen anything stranger in China” than a fellow volunteer’s tale of a Midwestern biker rally.

Stuck in an absurd traffic jam on a remote Inner Mongolian steppe—driving in China is a fruitful theme for Hessler—he invokes “the shadowy line between the Strange and the Stupid,” putting me in mind of a farcical version of Joseph Conrad’s The Shadow Line (in which the narrator’s ship, with a cholera-ridden crew, is inexplicably stranded in windless Oriental waters). At the same time, Hessler’s piece touches on the serious side of Conrad’s “shadow line”—between Youth and Maturity—in sketching, with suggestive anecdotes, the transformations that he and his colleagues underwent through their service.

The comparison struck me because I had just read The Shadow Line, but I see that Hessler says he does “read and re-read Joseph Conrad.”


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