Updated on August 5, 2015
28. ‘Siddhartha’ by Hermann Hesse
And now for something completely different… This is the story of titular character Siddhartha, who lives in ancient India at the time of Gotama Buddha, and who embarks on a mission of spiritual and philosophical awakening.
It’s a brief book, but it covers Siddharta’s entire and varied life. At first he comes across as a slightly irritating, Harry Potter-esque ‘chosen one’. Everybody knows he is destined for great things, anything he turns his hand to comes naturally to him, and he is easily more accomplished than anyone else. His poor old best friend Govinda lives constantly in his shadow. Despite this Siddartha is dissatisfied with his life and is desperate for enlightenment.
Govinda and Siddhartha leave their homes and become Samanas: they wander the country, begging for food occasionally, but mostly learning how to live with practically nothing. They even meet Gotama Buddha. It borders on fantasy at times, as they go for weeks without food and train their bodies not to feel the cold or the ravages of weather.
Essentially this is the story of one man trying to discover himself, and the fact that he does not stick to one path makes it all the more interesting. He abandons life as a Samana (and Govinda) and travels to the city to learn about love from a courtesan and money from a merchant. As an older man he becomes disillusioned and travels into the country to live the simple life of a ferryman and, courtesy of a snakebite, makes a discovery that unbalances his tranquillity once again.
There’s no getting away from his often superior and judgemental voice. He looks upon the majority of ordinary people as animals, and even though he lives in this manner for most of his life, he always sees himself as somehow better.
There is a theme of circularity in the book: Siddhartha runs away from his father, and his son runs away from him. He goes through cycles of prosperity and ruin, and each new truth pushes him into a different way of life. Eventually he reaches the perfect truth he is looking for. I particularly loved his descriptions of the river, and the idea that all voices and all things are contained within it.
Unfortunately my copy was a particularly awful translation, riddled with typos, grammatical errors, missing words and sometimes downright nonsensical sentences. Still, this didn’t stop me from enjoying the story, which I found gentle, simple and profound.
“He saw mankind going through life in a childlike or animallike manner, which he loved and also despised at the same time. He saw them toiling, saw them suffering, and becoming grey for the sake of things which seemed to him entirely unworthy of this price…”
This was a birthday present from my boyfriend, which I asked for after seeing it in a bookshop and being intrigued, because it is so unlike anything I’ve read before.
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?