Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

This novel first published in 1951 gained a new lease of life in the sixties when it fell in to the canon of hippy literature and accompanied many an adventurer on the Hippy Trail from Europe to the East.
Set in India 2,500 years ago it tells the story of Siddhartha, the son of a Brahmin, who leaves the comforts of his family home to live the life of a wandering holy man.
It has biographical echoes of the story of the historical Prince Siddhartha Gautama who became the Buddha and who Hesse's fictional Siddhartha actually meets during his wandering.
It can be read at an allegorical level – the journey that its narrator takes is a symbolic journey through life, or even a series of
incarnations, as he lives at first as privileged young man, then as a wandering ascetic, then a life of materialism and sensual pleasures before becoming a meditative recluse once again.
From early on Siddhartha seems to be close to the sort of spiritual enlightenment that Buddha’s followers are seeking - begging for his food, living without possessions and meditating on the fragility of what we perceive as reality.
Yet after meeting Buddha, Siddhartha abandons that lifestyle and plunges in to the world of materialism, living as a merchant, becoming the lover of a courtesan, indulging in fine wines and rich foods.
He becomes so immersed in his materialistic existence that the spiritual being he once was is all-but forgotten.
But this existence is necessary to Siddhartha’s spiritual development as well. He needs raw experience rather than abstract philosophy to reconnect with his higher self.
It is only when he abandons his materialistic existence to work alongside a simple old man, ferrying travellers by raft across a river that he achieves true enlightenment.
It is easy to see why it appeals to the Hippy sensibilities as it combines, Eastern mysticism with materialistic abandonment but
suggests that life must be lived before it can be properly understood.


Fionnchú said...

Unbelievably, I re-read this (first time since teenaged years, when everyone used to read it) last weekend, in the more recent Penguin translation (fresher than the standard Hilda Rosen one I compared it with). I found it about the same as I recalled.

Gentle, yet persistent in its message. Joachim Neugroschel conveys its insistent rhythms and gently archaic style well. Hesse packs a lot of heft into a fragile vessel.

By the way, check this out for your next review: Barcelona Noir.

Tony Bailie said...

This was a re-read as well, although I think I was in my twenties before I got in to Hesse. I like him. Demian and Rosshalde are my favourites. Not that taken with Steppenwolf. Got stuck half way through The Glass Bead Game.
Re Barcelona Noir... will see if I can get a copy. I have read a whole series of books by Manuel Vazquez Montalban which feature a Barcelona-based detective called Pepe Carvalho... which delve into Catalan nationalism, Spanish communism and post-Franco revisionism.
Just got new Benjamin Black for review.

Fionnchú said...

For NYJB? Beat me to it! I did not know about "A Death in Summer"; I looked up the publisher's blurb to happily (?) learn that Sinclair's back, who I sorely missed in "Elegy," and Pheobe. But given that pairing, I suspect skulduggery's in store.

As for Hesse, I've only read "Steppenwolf" in college; it seemed like a hallucination, and I barely can remember it. I got a hundred pages into "Glass" but gave up, which I rarely do. I could follow it, but it did not seem worth my time, and it seemed devoid of air or wit. Or maybe it's a laugh riot in German?

Netherland said...

Siddhartha is a book about the life of every man. The search for God, truth and ultimately ones own self - and the disallusionment that is encountered in this search.