My first week back at work after two weeks away was a bit of a shock to the system.
But in spite of all the overtime, all the stress, there was something special about this week. Something that kept me going, something that stirred a little magic through my thoughts as I sat at my desk, typing…
It was, of course – a book. With me, it mostly always is…
by Hermann Hesse
Published in 1922
Every so often, you stumble haphazardly across a book that feels as if it were written for you; just for you. The struggles of the main character are your struggles too. His or her thoughts resonate with your own.
When it happens, it’s like a kind of cosmic alignment, a giant coincidence that sees the right book find its way into your hands at the perfect time you need to read it – and it changes your life forever. Some books just speak to you. They whisper softly in your thoughts – or they scream in your ear.
For me, right now, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha was one of those books that came along just at the right time. It was first published in Germany in 1922, but it wasn’t until the swinging Sixties that it became more widely read. Groovy.
Siddhartha is set in India; some time around 600 BC, in the time of Buddha. Siddhartha himself begins the story as a young boy, the son of a Brahmin, the respected caste of priests. He is popular, intelligent, handsome, and looks set to follow in his father’s footsteps. But, for young Siddhartha, this is not enough – his enquiring mind still has questions to answer. Even though he has much, he still yearns for more – he longs for inner peace.
Siddhartha and his friend, Govinda, leave their family homes on a search for enlightenment that takes their whole lives, that sees the two friends part and meet again, time after time.
Siddhartha learns much on his journey. He learns to deprive himself of all his senses; to hypnotise a man with his gaze. He speaks with the Buddha himself. He learns the art of making love from a beautiful courtesan. From a businessman, he learns the art of trading, and becomes rich. He learns to gamble, to drink…he loses his way, betrays everything he believes in.
Middle-aged, fat and complacent, Siddhartha abandons his home; his beautiful lover, and walks away from his life as a rich man. He falls asleep by a river, jaded and forlorn – and wakes up to begin his life anew; to learn the lesson of the river.
I’ll leave my plot summary right there, I think. There’s so much more I could tell you, but I wouldn’t want to spoil the book’s ending for you.
Siddhartha is one of those books that, I imagine, you could read several times throughout your lifetime, and with every reading, you’d notice something new; you’d be drawn to different passages. Every time, it’d tell a different story.
The most amazing thing about Siddhartha is that, for such a profound book, it’s not at all difficult to read. It’s written in beautiful, simple language that sparkles with life and flows with genuine feeling, genuine experience:
“Like a veil, like a thin mist, a weariness settled on Siddhartha, slowly, every day a little thicker, every month a little darker, every year a little heavier. As a new dress grows old with time, loses its bright colour, becomes stained and creased, the hems frayed, and here and there weak and threadbare places, so had Siddhartha’s new life which he had begun after his parting from Govinda, become old. In the same way it lost its colour and sheen with the passing of the years: creases and stains accumulated and, hidden in the depths, here and there already appearing, waited disillusionment and nausea. Siddhartha did not notice it. He only noticed that the bright and clear inward voice, that had once awakened in him and has always guided him in his finest hours, had become silent.”
– Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, page 61
I shivered as I read the above passage on the hot, crowded train to work, and turned the corner of that page over with a respectful nod of recognition. The way Hermann Hesse manages to use simple language to convey the innermost thoughts and complex emotions of his protagonist is utterly, utterly brilliant. The phase of the book where he runs off the rails, so to speak, where he loses his way is what makes Siddhartha so special. Without this passage, we’d feel little sympathy for him. It’s his weakness that makes him human, and it’s Siddhartha’s humanity that makes his story so compelling.
Still looking for reasons to read Siddhartha? At a mere 117 pages, Siddhartha is deceptively short, yet still leaves the reader feeling satisfied at its conclusion. It doesn’t feel like a 117-page book, there’s so much packed in there. You’ll breeze through it. Plus, my lovely Penguin Modern Classics copy even has a glossary at the back that helps you understand the Hindu terms used in the book – and a touching, personal introduction, written by Paulo Coelho.
Hesse doesn’t belt the poor, unsuspecting reader over the head with complicated philosophy or confusing spiritualism. Just like Siddhartha himself, Hesse lets us experience Siddhartha’s journey for ourselves, and form our own conclusions. Hesse’s writing, somehow, goes straight to the very heart of things. His writing is so clear and concise and beautiful, it makes me shake my head in awe. There’s no messing around, nothing unnecessary. Every sentence of Siddhartha is perfect – without feeling contrived or overdone. Hesse could do a much better job at writing a book review than I ever could.
After reading Siddhartha, my thoughts were left whirling for days, and, I’m afraid that they still haven’t settled. A word of warning: Siddhartha is one of those books that has the power completely possesses your mind. When you’re not reading it, you’ll be thinking about it. Even when you turn the final page, Siddhartha’s journey doesn’t end – it continues in your thoughts.
Ultimately, Siddhartha’s journey becomes the start of your own journey – a journey that’s different for everyone.
Siddhartha feels like it was written just for me. But I don’t mind sharing. I think you’ll love it, too.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
Let me put it this way: if I really did have a time machine, I’d travel back in time, find my previous self, and make me read this book. I’d slap my old self around with it, if necessary. It’s just THAT good. I wish I’d read it earlier.
In a word: