We all have classic books that we want to read but rarely get around to. That’s the main driver behind John Wiswell’s challenge to read a classic (or two) each March. Deemed NaNoReMo, the challenge is simple: read a classic and share your thoughts with others after you’re done. The reader is free to define classic in any way they choose.
I initially was on the fence about participating this year, but after hearing Siddhartha tossed around as a possible read I decided to join in. The book, Hermann Hesse was originally written in German. Given my linguistic challenges, of course, I read an English translation.
The story is set in India at the time of Gautama Buddha (called Gotama in my translation of this book.) The names were a bit confusing for me since Siddhartha is also part of the Buddha’s name – Siddhartha Guatama. Nevertheless, the main character of this book is a boy named Siddhartha who enjoys a charmed childhood as the son of a respected Brahman. He wants to find enlightenment and the book chronicles his journey through adulthood. His childhood friend Govinda, his lover Kamala, a ferryman/mentor Vasudeva and the aforementioned Gotama all play a role in his search for enlightenment.
My reactions to the book are mixed, so I will talk through them in the order they came to me. At the beginning of the story I was impressed with its feel. The story read like similar tales from that region. It felt similar to reading the Bhagavad Gita or Ramayana. I did not expect that from a novel written in German and translated into English.
As I reached the middle of the novel, the story began to feel a bit tired and preachy. It wasn’t the message of the tale that was preachy as I will get to in my next point. The preachy parts were small statements that distracted me from the story. Statements that seemed to imply rich people could not be happy or godly seemed overly simplistic for the complex themes the book was addressing.
Even given my complaints in the last paragraph, the book actually did a good job of making points through symbolism. There is a scene where he sees a bird dead in a cage – symbolizing the deadness he felt in his decadent lifestyle. After he walks away from that life, his mistress releases a bird from the cage symbolizing his quest to break free of samsara. There are other similar moments involving the river that provide rich, thoughtful insights. Also, the book features some clever irony in Siddhartha’s realization that teaching cannot help anyone achieve enlightenment while the book feels as if it is trying to do just that – teach.
My back and forth continued with the ending as it left me unsatisfied. Maybe I’m too critical, but I didn’t see Siddhartha’s peaceful state as enough evidence to convince me he had reached either nirvana or moksha (depending upon whether you feel he embraced the Buddhism of Gotama or the assumed Hinduism of his youth.) Thus, the story felt incomplete for me.
Similarities Between Siddhartha and Forrest Gump
At one point in the story Siddhartha meets the Buddha and has a conversation with him. Seeing a fictional character interact with a historical figure caused my strange mind to draw parallels to the movie Forrest Gump. In that movie, the main character interacts with multiple historic figures – playing football for legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and even shaking hands with John F. Kennedy at one point. The scenes where Forrest runs across the US as a way to deal with everything also mirrors Siddhartha’s wandering as he searches for understanding.
Another similarity is Siddhartha’s friendship with Vasudeva after his painful ending to his period of selfish living. This was similar to Forrest’s friendship with Lieutenant Dan after they return from the war. (And in both stories they work together on a boat.) And probably the most glaring similarity between the two is the discovery of a son that they did not know existed.