I accompanied a friend to the huge Anna centenary library in the heart of Chennai on a cloudy Saturday afternoon. I entered the English literature section which has a mind boggling collection. Somehow I noticed the book “Steppenwolf” within a few minutes of wandering. I had read “Siddhartha” about a year ago and now I felt I was ready for another Herman Hesse book. I was not hooked instantly, but somewhere near the 10th page I found this and I knew I had to finish it.
“Most men will not swim before they are able to.” Is not that witty? Naturally they won’t swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for the water. And naturally, they won’t think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what’s more, he who makes thought his business, may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown.
I have come across different kinds of books in my life. There are some simple ones which can be read quickly and digested as if it was just a glass of water. However some books are like coffee; they have a strong story line, authentic style which keeps you alert and awake. You won’t be satisfied till you finish. Others are sweet and addictive like mango milkshake. The language and the characters are so lovely that you want more of it even after you have consumed it greedily in a couple of gulps. You won’t be satisfied even after you have finished.
But there are some books that are like whisky served neat. You are supposed to read it slowly and pause often for contemplation. Even if you want to drink it in a hurry, you’ll be out and flat. It has to be consumed sip by sip. Steppenwolf belongs to this category of books. [Now don’t imagine things about my illustrious drinking career which has not yet started].
The protagonist in the book is a loner named Harry Haller who is alone and is in his fifties. He rents a room in a bourgeois landlady’s home. The landlady finds him interesting but his nephew finds Harry to be queer and mysterious. Later, he re-evaluates his judgement after a few interactions with Harry. And then, all of a sudden, Harry disappears from their home and the nephew finds a manuscript titled “Harry Haller’s Records (For madmen only).” The nephew adds a brief introduction which includes the above details and presents the manuscripts to the reader.
In one of his wanderings, Harry Haller given a small book titled “Treatise on the Steppenwolf” by a person carrying an advertisement for a magic theatre. The book surprisingly describes his own life and encourages him to explore, analyse and understand his dual selves. One side of his personality is refined and civilised of which he is proud. The other side which he labels as the darker animal instincts within himself also control his thoughts and life. Eventually, he feels that he won’t be able to reconcile with anomalies of life and fears to return home. He fears that he might kill himself due to the same.
And then by a series of events he meets Hermine and her friends Maria and Pablo. He debates and learns from them. He is eventually led to the magic theatre whose advertisement he had seen earlier. All his fantasies and theories come right in front of his eyes inside. The characters he meets inside elaborate on the fantasies he had been pondering over. And eventually, he is thrown out of it and the story ends abruptly.
Many including Herman Hesse himself claim that the book has been misunderstood. But somehow, I could totally relate to everything mentioned in the book about our dual selves, the middle class or “bourgeois” attitude/approach to life. The metaphors and representations of the thoughts might be debatable, but the content and power of the narrative has to be acknowledged by all partly if not fully. The writer stretches the themes to achieve an artistic effect and talks about a suicidal solution to resolve all dilemmas of life or the “magic theatre” of life. However, I hope that anyone who can relate to the book doesn’t end up misinterpreting those parts of the book. Though I eulogize this book , I would still say it is not for everybody because it too intense and somewhat pessimistic.
The essence of it all is summarized in the following lines I guess. Do let me know about your opinion if you read it sometime
“When you listen to the radio you are a witness of the everlasting war between idea and appearance, between time and eternity, between the human and divine. … It makes its unappetizing tone- slime of the most magic orchestral music. Everywhere it obtrudes its mechanism, its activity its dreary exigencies and vanity between the ideal and the real, between orchestra and ear. All life is so, my child, and must let it be so: and if we are not asses, laugh at it. It little becomes people like you to be critics of radio or life either. Better learn to listen first! Learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest.”