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Put down, but never discarded

By Paul Doolan - posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013


There are books, read in youth, the content of which we still remember decades later. And there are books, of which the act of reading itself can be vividly recalled as if it were yesterday.

It was July 1980. I had been travelling for three years. In the multitudinous din that was India, I was alone. Emaciated, jaded and worryingly low on funds, I arrived in the holy city of Madurai. Near the grand temple I found a room in a cheap hotel, a loveless place called Venus: a small window, a bowl and jug of water on the floor and a narrow bed.

Hidden under the bed I found, like a discarded miracle, a copy of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. Sitting cross legged on the bed I opened the book and my eyes read the most beautiful sentence ever written: "In the shade of the house, in the sunshine on the river bank by the boats, in the shade of the sallow wood and the fig tree, Siddhartha, the handsome Brahmin's son, grew up with his friend Govinda." Reading that sentence, so unexpected, was the purest aesthetic experience I had ever had.

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I recognized that then, and I can recall it still – aesthetic joy. The sounds of the surging Indian city outside were stilled as I read on in a pool of silence. In one sitting I finished the novel. Then I started again. When I left the hotel, three days later, I left the book where I had found it. Perhaps someone else right now is savouring their first encounter.

Months later I was living in an attic room in a tall red-bricked building in a Dutch university town, lashed by the salty rain that rolled in off the cold North Sea. I had by then bought my own copy of Siddhartha and I read Hesse's other works as if the ancient oracle of Delphi was whispering obscure wisdoms into my restless mind, Narcissus and Goldmund, Steppenwolf, The Glass Bead Game.

Of course everyone of my generation read Hesse during their youth. We grow up, and we put childish things to one side. I have grown to become less adventurous and much less filled with the aching of idealistic hope. Aesthetic enjoyment is less likely to pounce unexpectedly, more likely to be revealed in the shade of the house rather than in the sunshine on the river bank. Wagner has replaced Hesse.

Still, when I moved to Zurich, Switzerland in 2000 and discovered that Siddhartha had first appeared in installments in the local newspaper, the Neue Zurcher Zeitung in 1922, strange as it might seem, it helped me to feel at home in the city. Hesse loved this city too, I discovered. During his writing of Steppenwolf he spent a part of every year here. And so, now middle aged, I found myself hunting for his opinions of the city and searching out his old haunts.

Two years ago I decided to undertake a pilgrimage to Lugano, in the south of Switzerland, to visit the place where Hesse had written his masterpiece and where he now lies buried. Lugano is a mixture of old worldly Italianate charm and modern brazenness, breathtaking mountain views and genteel private banks that are outnumbered by the purring Ferraris that graze near the lakeside promenade.

Hesse lived from 1919 until his death in 1962 on the outskirts of the town, in what was then the simple village of Montagnola. Near the entrance to the village one finds the ancient church of Saint Abbondio. Across the road from the church I found the small sun drenched cemetery. It didn't take long to find his grave.

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He lies here with his wife, Ninon Auslander. His plot includes an inviting stone slab and I accepted its silent invitation and sat for twenty minutes in the brilliant April sunshine. I then penned him a note and tucked it beneath one of the pebbles on the grave

And the moral of this story? Never regret leaving a book behind. It might change a life.

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About the Author

Paul Doolan teaches history at Zürich International School, Switzerland and lectures in Political Systems at the College for International Citizenship in Birmingham, England.

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