Tag Archives: German

On Hermann Hesse’s “Siddhartha”

3 Jun
Nobel Prize-winner Hermann Hesse published Siddhartha in 1922.

Nobel Prize-winner Hermann Hesse published Siddhartha in 1922.

There is no greater journey than that of searching for one’s Self. Think of Frodo and trekking to Mordor with Nazgul on his heels, Dorothy skipping toward Oz through fields of opium,  or Aeneas traversing the underworld. People love to watch the struggle against all odds, the passion that drives our favorite protagonists, and the transformations that happen along the way. I love tales of journeys the way I love football montages: all that grit and struggle and triumph. Makes a young woman tear up just thinking about it. When it comes down to it, Hermann Hesse has created one of the most read and most memorable tales of self-discovery in modern literary history. Siddhartha tells the story of the eponymous son of a Brahmin who spends a lifetime learning who he is.

Young Siddhartha grows up under the Hindu teachings of his father, a prestigious Brahmin. Siddhartha is known throughout his community as a beautiful boy, wise beyond his years, and holier than the most saintly saints. Siddhartha is so holy, in fact, that he has to leave home. His quest to understand himself and life itself motivate him to join a sect of ascetics, and when a life of deprivation and holier-than-thou judgmentalism loses its shine, he abandons the ascetics to hear the teachings of the Buddha, Gotama, and in turn, abandons the Buddha for a life of love and pleasure in the arms of the beautiful courtesan Kamala. In this way–traveling from sect to sect, mantra to mantra–Siddhartha grows from adolescence to adulthood.

At one point, Siddhartha meets the Buddha Gotama, but rejects his teaching to follow his own path.

At one point, Siddhartha meets the Buddha Gotama, but rejects his teaching to follow his own path.

In its essence, Siddhartha is a tale of self-discovery, but it is also a beautifully written character sketch of a protagonist who is rarely sympathetic and, up until the end,  unworthy of the praise he believes he deserves. The book began by portraying Siddhartha as a young man whose holiness and vigor for life led him above and beyond his childhood teachings, but we soon learn that his holiness is actually a superiority complex and that his vigor is actually discontent.

On the road toward what he hopes is a fulfilling life, Siddhartha says, “All whom I meet on the way are like Govinda. … All are subservient, all wish to be my friend, to obey and think little. People are children.” He is pronoic, narcissistic, and cruelly selfish, but it isn’t until he leaves behind all semblances of holiness for a life of physical pleasure and wealth that his true nature is really seen. In his narcissism, Siddhartha creates a fantasy of superiority to all around him, yet feels constantly his incompleteness, the flawed nature of his Self, and it drives him onward, away from the self-righteousness of asceticism, away from the celebrity of the Buddha, away from the affections of Kamala. When reading Siddhartha, it would be easy to look for symbols of holiness–patience, self-denial, wisdom–and for symbols of rotten nature–greed, lust, pleasure–but human nature can rot in a whole variety of ways and in as many ways be healed. Siddhartha’s path to discovering who he is covers all the bases.

I love living near water, and many of my fond childhood memories take place on the banks of a stream or lake. I can see how the river becomes Siddhartha's best teacher.

Abandoning teacher after teacher, Siddhartha finally finds one of the wisest: the river.

Read it if … if you haven’t read it yet. Siddhartha is one of those novels that everyone should read at one point. You can finish it in half an afternoon, and then sigh and look longingly at a river for the rest of it.

Don’t red it if … you don’t feel like contemplating life. As short as it is, the novel forces a reader to consider desire, contentment, and narcissism. It’s the kind of heavy stuff you only find in tiny, unassuming books that you were supposed to have read in high school but didn’t because your English teachers were only there to coach soft ball. No, I’m not bitter.

This book is like … a strange combination of Cervantes’s questing Quixote and André Gide’s The Immoralist: there’s a lot of marching around making grand statements, and a lot of self-pity. But like The ImmoralistSiddhartha is intensely contemplative. Also, check out The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. This novel is also a quick read and follows another one of those air-headed protagonists who lost his Self. (I’ll be honest, though, and say I’m not a fan of Coelho’s. Come fight me if you want.)

Highly acclaimed German literary figure Hermann Hesse attempted his own spiritual enlightenment through Indonesia and Burma. Perhaps, Siddartha, he tried to write the enlightenment he wanted for himself.

Highly acclaimed German literary figure Hermann Hesse attempted his own spiritual enlightenment through Indonesia and Burma. Perhaps, in Siddhartha, he tried to write the enlightenment he wanted for himself.

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On Timm’s “The Invention of Curried Sausage”

14 Jul

Is there a better novel theme than World War II plus food? I remember drooling over Brian Jacques’s enrapturing Redwall feasts, even though I don’t think I would know a watercress from a water chestnut. Uwe Timm’s The Invention of Curried Sausage affected me similarly, only using fewer mice. I already love war novels (adored All Quiet on the Western Front, the book and the movie, earlier this year), wish I were Ernest Hemingway, and if only they all had soldiers eating curried sausage, I would just lose it.

The narrator of TIOCS is on a quest to discover the true inventor of the popular dish–a combination of local German staple and exotic spice. Decades after the war and now grown to be middle-aged, he returns to his native town of Hamburg, where he remembers an old Lena Brücker, famous for the curried sausage she sold from her street cart. Our narrator finds Mrs. Brücker interned in a nursing home, now blind and toothless, but still sharp. From her he hopes to discover the truth of curried sausage, suspecting she invented it, but instead gets embroiled in her story of her middle-aged adventure: harboring a young deserter during the collapse of the Third Reich.

Timm shifts from a news-like prose to the thoughtful voice of Mrs. Brücker to the stoic reports of the narrator, and I wouldn’t say the shifts are effortless. They are artistically planned.

The long Brücker stows Bremer away, the harder her confession becomes. Her guilt for lying and his guilt for desertion culminate in resentments, suspicion, and eventually violence. Their relationship becomes a lovely, if slightly twisted, display of people adapting to peace and the unwillingness to face change even if the change is for the better.

Despite the title, curried sausage sits in the backdrop to the story of Brücker and Bremer, but it is the inevitable product of Brücker’s life–all her choices and deceptions and intentions. Still, though, one of my favorite quotes of the book illustrates the dish’s impact and Timm’s exemplary prose, which can be at times transcendent:

“The first officer took him ashore for a meal, curried chicken, that tasted, Bremer said, like a garden, a taste from another world. The wind; the snake that bites; the bird that flies; the night, love. Like in a dream. A memory of when we were once plants. And that night Bremer actually dreamed he was a tree.”

I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys war novels or liked books like The Reader or is interested in German history.

Now, it’s off to the kitchen, since the chicken’s almost done and I just bought curry from the grocery.