Author: Herman Hesse
Details: (c) Herman Hesse 1922; translated Hilda Rosner 1954; Pub 1998 Picador; ISBN 0-330-35485
Verdict: Siddhartha is a very polished account of spirituality.
Reasons for reading it: Although I have read Siddhartha before, it was at a time in my life when I was running away from serious thinking, so I read it very superficially. I wanted to read it properly and actually think about the theological stuff.
How it came into my hands: MK gave it to me for my birthday more years ago than I care to count. (It was also MK who got me out of that state where I was failing to cope. He helped me find the courage to face reality properly, and the strength not to be broken by it. He is a really wonderful friend.)
Hesse seems to inspire strong passions, but not for me. As with Steppenwolf, I appreciated Siddhartha, but I didn't find either novel mind-blowingly amazing. It seems to me like a very sensible account of human spiritual experience, with enough that is specific to Siddhartha as a character and to his Buddhist religious path to balance the more universal observations (as far as anything universal can be said about anything to do with humans). I find the theological conclusions appealing, the idea of fully accepting reality just as it is and loving all of it, but without being indifferent to what goes wrong in the world. That's a bad paraphrase; you kind of have to read the book to get a full picture of what it's doing theologically. I think that itself is a sign of the book's success; its message is too complex and too real to be reduced to a platitude or aphorism.
What is conveyed very well is the way that spiritual understanding has to be completely personal. Without sliding into polemic it's a very good indictment of the commodification of religion and spirituality. Also, it's very good at describing the experience of encountering holy people and holiness. It discusses the situation of having an amazing spiritual experience, and then falling back into mundane reality and not being as changed as you ought to be. Hesse's clarity about this, as well as his re-visioning of traditional stories to make a personal point, reminds me of Buber. I probably get on with Buber better because the latter's context is Jewish and therefore much more closely related to my own. On the other hand, the novelty of the religious context made the book very interesting. I have no idea whether the religion portrayed is accurate in detail, but it is solid and detailed and interesting to read about, and presented in a way that is integrated into the story without too much infodump.
Siddhartha just about succeeds on the plain story level. It's not tremendously exciting, and judged purely as a character Govinda is a bit implausibly stupid to provide a foil for Siddhartha's brilliance. But it's short and not overly dense, and Siddhartha works as a person as well as an archetype. In general, it made me think without lecturing or being intentionally academic. It's definitely worth reading if you're interested in the "big" questions about the meaning of life and so on.