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A must-read while growing up?

'Siddhartha' - A Journey to the East?

July 2, 2002

Hermann Hesse, one of the great German authors and poets of the 20th century is widely researched today in Asia. Little wonder that the ongoing celebrations for his 125th birth anniversary were kicked off in India.


Last November as Germany's Herman Hesse Year kicked off, a group of 40 Germans from the author's hometown of Calw made their way to the tiny village of Talasseri in Kerala on the picturesque Malabar coast of India.

The trip was a fitting one, considering the land of 1 billion had long fascinated Hesse and provided the setting for Siddhartha, one of his most famous books. But the trip was telling for another reason.

In contrast to Germany, where the Nobel prize winner's work has been criticized as "poetically sentimental" and "anachronistic", Hesse's books are a virtual hit in India and the rest of Asia.

Almost every student of German literature at Indian universities is familiar with Hesse’s books such as "Siddhartha", "Demian", "Glass Bead Case" and "Steppenwolf". Siddhartha was even filmed in 1972 in India featuring Indian actors.

Fascination with India

A major reason for Hesse's popularity is the overpowering legacy left him by his grandfather Hermann Gundert (1814-1893), who spent 23 years in southern India as a linguist and missionary Dr. Albrecht Frenz of the Hermann Gundert Society in Germany told DW-WORLD.

Hesse himself admitted in his autobiographies that he admired, feared and revered his grandfather who spoke more than 30 languages, had studied eastern religions and mythology and lived and mingled with people of other races, beliefs and customs.

Dr. Frenz, who was part of the delegation that kicked off the Hesse festival last year in southern India says that the amount of research devoted to Hermann Hesse and the number of German literature students in India seeking to do a doctoral thesis on Hesse is startling in contrast to the author's homeland.

"Germany has still not recognised the worth of Hermann Hesse after all these years", he said.

In India or not?

Little is known of Hesse’s time spent travelling in Asia and India in 1911 – the fulfillment of a childhood fascination resulting from his grandfather’s colourful stories.

Most references to this time report on Hesse being disappointed and disillusioned by India. Siddhartha , the journey of a young Brahman which was loosely based on the story of Buddha, was written after the author returned to Europe in 1919 and eventually published it in 1922.

But others, like Dr. Frenz, believe Hesse never made it to India. "He got as far as Sri Lanka, fell ill and had to cut short his trip," Frenz said.

It might help to explain why both Eastern and Western critics attacked the book as too simplistic and romantic. Hesse's treatment of the country and main character, they say, reflects his simple understanding of Indian and Buddhism religious traditions.

The judgements have been meted out to Hesse's other works by German literary critics.

The prominent critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki has termed Hesse’s works as "anachronistic", "far removed from the world" and "poetically sentimental".

In the year of Hesse's death in 1962, the former culture editor at the respected weekly "Die Zeit", Rudolf Walter Leonhardt said, "Hesse's works can't really fascinate anybody anymore".

Timeless themes and perspectives

The judgement seems at odds with works that have been translated into 60 languages, with over a 100 million copies sold world-wide. More than 75 million of those were sold outside of Germany.

The Index translatorum ranking of the United Nations Education and Social Cultural Organization indicates that Hermann Hesse is the most widely-read German author since the Grimm Brothers.

Volker Michels, of the Frankfurt-based Suhrkampf publishing house, which delivers some 30-50,000 works by Hesse within Germany, and much more outside says that foreign translators of Hesse’s works have often described finding Hesse as "not at all German".

The publisher calls Hesse "a traditionalist inexpression" and says that it’s Hesse’s themes and perspectives that are timeless.

Which perhaps explains why Siddhartha, with its distinctly eastern flavour and character draws more readers in Calcutta India than Munich.

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