Sometimes novels are really philosophy tracts in disguise. If you’re Neal Stephenson, this usually turns into an unwieldy doorstopper that uses its tremendous bullk to beat the reader into submission. If you’re Herman Hesse, you write a kind of novella that is also pretty dense yet somehow manages to be simple and light at the same time. Siddhartha is one of those delightful early twentieth-century novels that by modern standards do not work at all as novels, yet it still has a lot of merits.
The eponymous protagonist is a member of the Brahmin caste and eager to discover the path to enlightenment. The novel is somewhat episodic, as Siddhartha chases enlightenment in one direction or another. First he and his friend leave their home village to become sayanas, holy scholars who live in poverty. Although Siddhartha’s friend Govinda is rather taken with the life, Siddhartha himself finds it hollow and devoid of the enlightenment he seeks. They hear tell of a new type of holy man, a guy named Buddha, who is attracting all sorts of attention. So they journey to where Buddha teaches. He’s all right, and Govinda is smitten and joins the following. Siddhartha, alas, searches onwards. He takes up with a courtesan, who introduces him to a merchant, and from them he learns much about pleasure on the mortal plane. Yet still, enlightenment eludes him. It isn’t until he meets a poor, older ferryman that Siddhartha even approaches understanding enlightenment.
As a philosophy text, this book actually isn’t that explicit. Although Siddhartha meets many teachers, much of what Hesse seems to be aiming at is subtextual. You have to pay attention to Siddhartha’s thoughts about the people he meets and the situations in which he finds himself. The first two acts of the novel drag a little, because not much happens beyond Siddhartha flailing around trying to figure out his life, like any young person. When Siddhartha re-enters the temporal world to consort with Kamala and Kamaswami, the book picks up because suddenly we have a contrast to the ascetic Siddhartha we’ve always known.
Still, it’s definitely the ending of the book that packs the greatest punch. Vasudeva is transparently the most enlightened person we see, his secret being, of course, that he isn’t out there seeking enlightenment so desperately like Siddhartha. He listens to the river, as well as the people he ferries across it every day. When Siddhartha joins Vasudeva and begins to look at life from this angle, it’s his first true step towards understanding that enlightenment is not a destination but the whole journey.
Though not portrayed openly as such in the book, Siddhartha’s time with Vasudeva definitely has queer subtext to it. You could read it as homoerotic; as an aromantic asexual I prefer to headcanon it as queer-platonic, as something more complicated than the casualness of friendship but not strictly defined as sexual/romantic attraction between the two of them. The situation reminded me a lot of the episode of The Magicians where, in their quest for one of the keys, Quentin and Eliot end up living a lifetime together, raising a kid, and only then can they complete the puzzle that demonstrates enlightenment.
When Kamala shows up once more with her son by Siddhartha in tow, the book takes its turn towards its climax and conclusion. Kamala, the only named female character, is fridged for the sake of the plot—this book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test by far—and Siddhartha's son becomes an undisciplined thorn in his father’s side. This pierces the bubble of placidity that Siddhartha had shaped around himself. This is probably the most powerful theme of the novel: discard the illusion that contentment is a progressive, permanently attainable state of being. Unexpected events, change, will always arrive. What’s most important is that you make the most of what you have, when you have it, and then adapt as circumstances around you demand.
So, Siddhartha left me feeling pretty chill. It’s always interesting reading a book about Indian philosophy from a white guy, and arguably, this is a book about a white guy’s journey through understanding certain tenets of Indian philosophy rather than a story about an actual Indian man taking the journey. This is the only work by Hesse I’ve read, so I can’t compare it to his other works or place it in any other kind of context. Still, it was an interesting read that got me thinking about contentment and happiness and made me sound wise when talking to one of my best friends, so there’s that.