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Siddhartha, a short novel by Herman Hesse (book review and recommendation)

Siddhartha is a novel by German author Herman Hesse, originally published as a short novel in 1922. By the time Hesse died in 1962, he wasn't widely read, despite the fact that he was a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. In USA, Siddhartha was published (and translated to English) in 1951 but it was in the sixties that this short novel became influential, probably due to the hippie movement and its focus on Eastern teachings and religions. I've been wanting to read this novel for a while, and I'm glad I finally did. I actually listened to an audio-version of this book (in Italian) twice, and I plan to reread this novel some day. 

Nowadays, Siddhartha is a well-known novel for sure, a book both critically acclaimed and popular, but not without a reason, I would hasten to add. You know sometimes hyped works are really worth the hype. Fortunately for me as a reader, this novel met my expectations and I wasn’t left disappointed in any way. Besides giving me plenty of food for the thought, I can honestly say that Siddhartha touched me on an emotional level as well. Somehow the story of Siddhartha was very extremely easy to relate to.  This novel is written very simply but it conveys profound messages and concepts. Perhaps the simplicity of its writing is what makes it such a popular reading among the youngsters? Or is it because the protagonist seems to be rebellious? Still, I would say that this book has a lot (perhaps even more) to offer to a mature reader. It’s not that I’m ancient but I’m certainly not a teenager anymore and I found it very much to my liking. 

How mature is this work? Does this novel explain Buddhism? I don’t think it does but then again I don’t see why it should. If someone expects that, they will be disappointed. Explaining a complex religious teaching, now would be a bit too much to expect of a novel, wouldn’t it? Perhaps we can say that this novel was important when it came to introducing and popularizing spiritual concepts from Buddhism to Western world, but it is first and foremost a novel, not a study of a religion. Hesse is amazing when it comes to conveying philosophical and theological concepts to literary forms, though. I could sense both references to Bhagavat gita (the secret text of Hinduism, a part of Hindu epic Mahabharata) and Buddha's noble truths. 

I remember how amazed I was by Narcissus and Goldmund, when I had first read it. What fascinated me most about that novel was the complex way it spoke of religion. On one hand, I could sense irony when religion was discussed but at the same time there was also respect and understanding of theological concepts. The same could be said of Siddhartha. Both novels tell a story of a young man who abandons his religious upbringing/education in favour of a sensual lifestyle that could be considered sinful, just one happens to a former monk and the other a son of a Brahmin. Perhaps both novel aren’t exactly a critique of religion and society(as some might see it), but more a critique of a superficial way of understanding spirituality and of danger of losing our individual self by following society's rules. Can spirituality exist outside of religion? I think Herman suggests that it can, that an individual can find the meaning of life in ways that aren’t necessarily traditional. The more I think of Narcissus and Goldmund, the more I realize how that novel is extremely similar to Siddhartha but more about that later, let’s first say a few words about this novel. 

This book tells the story of Siddhartha, a beautiful and beloved young son of Brahmin, who discontent with his life, decides to leave his father and family behind and pursue a life of a mystic. Siddhartha is profoundly unhappy, despite being loved and respected by many, despite being a diligent student, a person that everyone, even masters and religious figures (Brahmans) admire. His life story resembles but not reflects the story of Buddha, because Siddhartha is no Buddha.  Siddhartha, the protagonist of this novel is to encounter Buddha (who is in this novel also referred to as Gautama) and to talk with him, but Siddhartha will decide to follow his own path. Why did Hesse decide to use the Buddha’s Indian name (the one Buddha had before finding enlightening) for his protagonist? Was it also his way of commenting of Buddha’s path? Does this Siddhartha of the novel symbolizes Buddha prior to taking the road to nirvana?

Why did Siddhartha decide not to follow Buddha despite his obvious respect and admiration for him? Was it because he wasn't ready for it? Was it because Siddhartha was aware that he probably wouldn't be able to accept Budhha as a teacher? Was it because Siddhartha was too proud or because he became jaded by studying different teachings?  I might just as well ask- Why did the protagonist of Narcissus and Goldmund decide to leave the monastery despite being obviously gifted theologically? Interestingly, both novels also feature a story of intense friendship between two men, friendship that seems to overcome time and separation. These stories of friendship humanize the headstrong protagonists of these two novels. Siddhartha’s friend Govinda leaves Brahmins and then later on also ascetics when Siddhartha does, following Siddhartha wherever he goes, but when they met Buddha, his friend remains by Buddha’s side. 

Why didn’t Siddhartha do the same? Siddhartha has learned everything that the Brahmin and aesthetic had to teach him, so he claims but he admits that Buddha’s teaching is the most perfect one, yet he leaves Buddha in search of his own path that will result in leading an ordinary life. What is the meaning of this? I think that what stroke me the most about the conversation between Buddha and our protagonist is Buddha’s warning ( I don’t say what kind of warning it is to avoid spoilers, but I thought that was an interesting moment). Siddhartha says he won’t accept any doctrine, perhaps what he means to say is that he intends find his own answers and then what follows is pretty much the plot so I won’t get into that. I will, however, say that to me Siddhartha seems to be intellectual. It is perhaps exactly that intellectualism, that desire to know and explain everything that holds him back in experiencing not only profound spiritual experiences but also ordinary relationships. Perhaps Siddhartha, at that point he meets Buddha, is ironically so skilled in detachment and self-control that he doesn’t know how to give himself, how to really open up to another human being and hence he cannot accept Buddha as a teacher. Naturally, this is only one of possible interpretations. I could probably go about this topic forever, but I think there is actually a limit of how long a review can be. 

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Siddhartha by Herman Hesse? Curiously enough what comes to my mind is a scene from one Italian film L’ultimo Bacio in which Francesca (who is basically a teenager if I remember well) gives this book as a present to a man (Carlo was it?) she has fallen in love (and spent the night) with, a man who will leave her only a few moments later (and Carlo won’t even bother to take the book with him). For some reason I found that scene quite touching, the image of that young pain quite vivid, with the shock of that first heartbreak and treason clearly written on her face.  Despite the fact that I had obviously heard about this novel before, I will perhaps forever connect it with this film and this scene in which the book (or was it the wrap paper the book was in?) flies from the top of the car onto the street because this guy is such a rush to get away from poor Francesca and to get to his future wife. Anyway, this novel is filled with similar pain as there are an awful lot of painful goodbyes. There so much abandonment going on. Friends, children, lovers, parents, they all abandoning one another for one reason or other. I find it very interesting, especially when the reason for abandonment was the quest to find the meaning of life. Must we abandon those we love to find the meaning of love? Or are maybe some of the characters (whom I won’t name at this point) running away from life because they are afraid of it not because they want to find meaning in it?

If I were to try to find faults with Hesse's novel, I could say that the protagonist seems terribly selfish. I know he is discontent with life, but is that the reason to abandon everyone who loves him. It seems that Siddhartha cares only about himself. I do love him for him honestly, but Siddhartha's detachment with everyone makes him seem very distant and even cold. On the other hand, can Siddhartha be any different, can he act differently? Is there another way? If Siddhartha were to remain by his father's side when he found no meaning in that kind of life, wouldn't that be hypocrisy, taking the easy way and giving up? Similarly, when romantic love doesn't offer him fulfillment, is Siddhartha really wrong to leave and search for his happiness elsewhere? If Siddhartha followed Buddha when he had no sincere desire to do so, wouldn't that been hypocrisy as well? Those are complex questions. This novel doesn't offer clear answers. It hints on spiritual and religious concepts,  meanings and truths. It hints that one must follow its own path, abandon the social conventions in favour of individual questioning. Isn't that something every mature individual should do? To question one's life? 

Who was Herman Hesse, this man who makes me ask so many questions? Having read only one of his novels prior to this one, I can't possibly answer that but for a long time I was (for some reason) convinced that he must have been a philosopher as well as a writer. Turns out that he wasn’t exactly a philosopher, although his grandfather seems to have been a philosopher of some esteem, so perhaps that is why Hesse comes off (at least in his writing) so fluent in philosophical subjects. One of the reasons why I found writing this review a bit challenging is because philosophy is not my strongest point but I did feel that this novel was a philosophical one.  I liked this novel immensely, possibly because it is such an ambition work. It deals with subjects that are anything but easy to explain. 

This book might have risen to fame because of the hippie movements and all that, but it is actually a very complex piece of writing. It is not a novel about Buddhism, (it doesn’t even properly examine this religion and its teachings) nor does it shows ‘the way to nirvana and enlightenment'. It does talk about spirituality, though. Siddhartha is, like Narcissus and Goldmund, a novel about the search for meaning of life.  A novel about friendship, about love and about spiritually. Siddhartha devotes his whole life to studying and learning to think, only to discover that knowledge isn’t hidden solely in words and philosophy. What does Siddhartha really achieve at the end? Be what it may, Siddhartha is a touching and beautifully written novel. I’m so happy I had the chance to read it and I'll probably reread it.


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