Despite having more books on Mount TBR than I care to acknowledge, I seem to find myself at the moment in the cast of mind to pick up whatever new volume happens to pop through the door. This is a Bad Habit, I know, as I should be reading all the books I already own, or some of my review copies – but I just can’t make myself read what doesn’t feel right! Today’s post is about a case in point; “Singapore Dream and Other Adventures” by Hermann Hesse was a recent discovery and when it arrived I just couldn’t resist it…

Hesse is, of course, an author with whom I have a long acquaintance; I first read him in my early 20s, have revisited his work many times over the year and even co-hosted a Hermann Hesse Reading Week back in 2016 with Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat (you can find details on the page on the blog). As you can see from the image on the page, I thought I already had pretty much everything which had been translated into English; however, I stumbled across mention of “Singapore Dream” earlier this month and went off into a fit of excitement, ordering a copy straight away. The excitement hadn’t dimmed by the time the book arrived, and so needless to say it didn’t even get a chance to get onto the TBR!

Most of the Hesse books I own are older copies/translations from my first splurge of buying his books all those years ago; “Singapore Dream”, however, was issued in 2018 by Shambhala Publications in the USA, and the work is translated by Sherab Chodzin Kohn. It collects together, as the subtitle reveals, a series of travel writings from an Asian journey Hesse took in 1911, as well as poems about that period and a short story. Although the blurb on the back of the book claims that none of the works has been translated into English before, the translator’s preface does indicate the short story and a couple of the poems *have* been translated before. That’s by the by, really, because the collection as a whole is a cohesive gathering and gives a wonderful insight into Hesse’s travels as well as his thoughts about the East.

The book comes with a useful map at the beginning, tracing Hesse’s journey from Genoa, down the Mediterranean and through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea, Ceylon, Sumatra and Singapore. It was an epic journey, one he took with a friend, partly as an opportunity to travel and see this part of the world but also to avoid his family’s expectations that he should follow an ecclesiastic route. Hesse may have been drawn to religion but it was not that of his forebears…

As for myself, I want a sarong and brown sarong pants and to go with that, a green velvet cap and a sporty, jacket-length dressing gown of thin yellow silk…

Part 1 of the book contains the ‘Sketches and Essays‘ where Hesse records his journey, his experiences in the various villages, cities and jungles through which he passes, and his thoughts whilst doing so. His prose captures the lush vegetation, the heat, the different cultures and peoples he encounters, his dreams, his doubts and also, very strongly, his dislike of the colonial whites and the effect they’re having on the landscapes he moves through. Hesse is always happier exploring the indigenous cultures rather than sitting playing cards with white settlers, which gives his narrative even more power.

The eleven poems featured are again beautiful and evocative, capturing Hesse’s emotions more deeply as he moves through his journey. I’ve read some of his poetry before and commented at the time on his sense of yearning and melancholy. Certainly that permeates the verse here, and it’s quite beautiful.

My heart clenches with joy,
It beats with love, drunk on the bliss of travel.
(from ‘Arrival at Ceylon’)

The final piece in the book is a short story, ‘Robert Aghion‘, and it really is a triumph, following the adventures of a young clergyman as he travels to India to ‘convert’ the people there to the Word of the Lord. Aghion is singularly unfit for the job, since he has no real missionary zeal and is more interested in collecting the insects and butterlies he finds (Hesse drawing on his own tendencies here, I suspect!); and needless to say, his encounters with the colonial whites are unpleasant. Instead, he finds himself drawn to the native Indian people, dazzled by their multitude of Gods and beliefs which seem to co-exist quite happily, and repelled by Western culture. An encounter with a beautiful Indian girl will play havoc with his emotions – but will East and West be able to break down the societal boundaries which exist between them?

“Singapore Dream” is a wonderful read from start to finish, full of such riches. Of course, Hesse was drawn to Eastern thought and culture, with many of his works exploring beliefs from those countries; “Siddhartha” of course springs to mind, and “Journey to the East”. However, the sketches and essays have an immediacy which draws you in, so that you’re travelling alongside Hesse, experiencing with him what he sees and discovers. The prose is beautiful and evocative, and the landscape and its people come vividly to life. The poetry is gorgeous and the short story impressive; in fact, the latter kept bringing to mind Sylvia Townsend Warner’s book “Mr. Fortune’s Maggot” which I read and wrote about in the early days of the Ramblings. In both cases, the authors understand that Western culture really shouldn’t and can’t be imposed on peoples living in other lands with their own ancient cultures, and the efforts of white missionaries will always fail.

Of all the European buildings out here, only the bungalows that have been built in the well-to-do residential suburbs are beautiful. They are fresh, livable, and look charming in their luxuriant park landscape. These bungalows are beautiful because they have perforce been adapted to the needs of the climate and therefore have had to retain the general qualities of the archetypal Malay house. Everything else that the whites have built, and are building here, would have been quite nicely suited to a German railroad station avenue of the eighties.

With any book of this age, there’s always the risk of terminology which can be problematic, and it’s mostly avoided here. There’s one instance of the n-word, but as this is used by a disgusting colonial white man in the short story, I assume it’s deliberate to show how loathsome he is. Hesse condemns colonial attitudes throughout the sketches and the short story (very strongly in the latter), and although his descriptions of other races are perhaps not as sensitively done as we would prefer them to be nowadays, he respects other cultures and quite obviously prefers them to the Western white colonials. There is always the risk of exoticising the East too, but it does seem that Hesse’s love of the culture is genuine. It’s a book which is from 1911 so I think that, compared with so many of his time, he had very forward-thinking views.

As I mentioned, translator Sherab Chodzin Kohn provides an interesting preface, putting Hesse’s journey into context. The translation itself reads well, although there were a couple of aspects which made me pause a little. Obviously, this is an American edition and so there is inevitably the occasional ‘gotten’ to annoy the life out of me, or ‘pants’ for trousers. More of concern was the fact that at one point there is talk of Hesse having a large amount of money to spend and the translator renders this as ‘dollars’. Personally, unless that was actually in the original German (and I have no way of checking), I would have preferred that to be e.g. German Marks, with a footnote giving me some kind of equivalent. I like a translation to still sounds as if I’m reading an author who wrote in a different language, with local terms retained where possible. However, these are minor points, and didn’t get in the way of my reading experience.

So “Singapore Dream” turned out to be a huge treat; a recently-translated work by a favourite author in a lovely edition which was a joy to read from start to finish. I imagine there must be a lot more of Hesse which I’ll never be able to read as it’s not translated, but at least I was able to enjoy this. I can’t remember where I saw mention of it (probably on Twitter or someone else’s blog) – but wherever it was, and from whom, thank you! Reading a new Hesse is a highlight of my reading year! 😀