Eileen's Reviews > Siddhartha

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse
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Feb 06, 12

Read in February, 2012


My first encounter with Herman Hesse dates back to the early ‘70’s. I was a freshman in college, enrolled in a special program for those who had already declared English as their major. The professor was very into the Upanishads, Vedas and all things Buddhist. In addition to reading passages from these works in class, he had us sit in a circle and chant OM, willing us to lose ourselves in meditation. Instead, he lost me as a student.

One of the books he assigned before I dropped out was Hesse’s STEPPENWOLF. I don’t know if it was a bad translation, but I did not understand the text or the seemingly schizophrenic narrator’s quest to become one of the “immortals.” I did not pick up another of Hesse’s works until a few months ago. On a trip to the bookstore, SIDDHARTHA called out to me from the pile of books on the “Summer Reading” table. The book I found is a new (2007) translation by Rika Lesser. Lesser, a celebrated poet, considers Hesse’s novel to be a Prose Poem and provides a beautifully flowing translation that she encourages us to read aloud to fully appreciate.

SIDDHARTA is the tale of a young man in search of knowledge. He seeks out many teachers, hoping to learn how to achieve true inner peace. These teachers are very different: his father, a privileged Brahman priest; a group of Shramanas (ascetic monks); even a personification of the Buddha himself. From them he gleans that, “Anyone can work magic, anyone can reach his goals, if he can think, if he can wait, if he can fast.” (page 50). He encounters a wealthy businessman and a beautiful courtesan and adopts their lifestyle for many years. But at forty, Siddharta despairs that after all his travels, he still suffers. Then he meets a simple ferryman who shares with him his love of the river. After years of living with the ferryman and working by his side, Siddharta finally grasps the secret to enlightenment.

In her Translator’s Note, Lesser explains why she felt compelled to translate a book originally published in 1922 and already translated five times: “Why so many (translations)? Things expire (for example, copyright terms); things change (language is one such thing); classics (even newer ones) remain classic but not constant; reading IS interpretation.” (p.xxix) Lesser supports this in the detailed Notes she provides on the text which are very personal and thought-provoking. Her exquisite translation of SIDDHARTA has encouraged me to read more of Hesse’s work and her own: I’ve already ordered Hesse’s SEASONS OF THE SOUL and Lesser’s collection of poems, GROWING BACK.

I wonder if we’d read SIDDHARTHA in Freshman English, instead of STEPPENWOLF, might I have remained in the class and embarked on my own quest for inner peace? Probably not. Even if I’d read it at eighteen, I don’t think I was ready to embark on that particular journey at the time. But decades later, and especially after practicing Yoga for the past year, I feel a need to go down that path. SIDDHARTHA, after all, only finds enlightenment as an old man, having traveled many different paths in his search.
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message 1: by Lisa (new)

Lisa Pletz Try Magister Ludi - I'm sure that you'll find it intriguing.

Eileen Thanks, Lisa. I'll put it on my "to read" list.

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