I used to volunteer at the Oxfam Bookshop on Byres Road in Glasgow. Being one of the busiest in the country, there was quite a high turnover of classic literature (in addition to the hundreds of Dan Brown and the like). As they rely on donations, the consistency of the stock would vary quite a bit, and predictably, would tend towards the famous. For a time, there was a list of Nobel Laureates for Literature taped to the shelf, so that people sorting through the donations could keep an eye out for them. Around the same time, I found a copy of Haldor Laxness’s Independent People, which I liked the sound of. Somewhat rashly, I decided that I would embark on a quest to read at least one work by every Laureate. Somewhat unsurprisingly, my resolve weakened fairly quickly. I hated Independent People, and as soon as it came to exam season that year, I promptly forgot my pledge.
Fast forward about three years, and when I looking over the list of book’s I’d read this year, there was quite a high proportion of Sci-fi/Fantasy titles. Which is fine, it is the genre(s) I prefer, but it gets a bit dull just reading the same style of book. So, logically, the solution to that is Nobel Laureates… Right? I’m not going to aim to exhaust the list during this year, but it’ll be there to add some variety to my reading.
Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse
Siddhartha is probably better than I give it credit for, and this rating reflects quite a bit on the quality of the version I was reading. Being an impoverished graduate, I turned to the Gutenberg Project for the text, which I think was a mistake. I’ve never had a problem with Gutenberg before, but this text was rife with typographical errors that made it quite difficult to really get into it. Coupled with a particularly verbose 1950’s translation from the German, it wasn’t a particularly fun experience to read.
That said, the actual book wasn’t bad. I’m well familiar with the Buddha legend, and (thanks to a first year course in Eastern Religion), have a passable understanding of Buddhism. I had assumed, knowing the subject matter of the book, that the Buddha was the eponymous Siddhartha. However, while the Buddha does appear, he is referred to only by his family name, Gotama. Instead Siddhartha is essentially a Bildungsroman for a young Nepali man with a sort of parallel understanding of early Buddhism. Siddhartha rejects his heritage first to become an ascetic along with his friend Govinda, then upon meeting the Buddha and being unimpressed, has a crisis of faith and returns to the world, before eventually achieving Enlightenment as a ferryman over a river.
I did find myself wondering, because of the way Hesse refers to the Buddha and to his title character, if the book was intended to be a sort of “parallel origin legend” of Buddhism, in the same way that The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ was for Christianity. If this is the case, it was certainly done a lot more subtly than Pullman’s effort, although maybe that’s just because I’m less familiar with the topic at hand.
Either way, and interesting as it was, some of the philosophical discussion did get a little repetitive. On top of this, almost all of the dialogues would take the form of “Quoth Siddhartha…”, “Quoth Govinda…”, “Quoth Siddhartha…” and so on. I don’t know if that’s an artefact of translation or if that’s how the original reads, but it got tedious after a while.
That said, as a fictional demonstration of basic Buddhist theology, Siddhartha is as good as any, and it’s worth reading for that alone. As I said above, I’d recommend to steer clear of the Gutenberg version and try for one of the newer translations.