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Korea Blog: Why do Koreans Love Herman Hesse’s Demian Above All Other Western Novels?

Not long before moving from Los Angeles to Seoul, I went book-shopping with my Korean language exchange partner at The Last Bookstore downtown. Browsing the semi-organized upstairs stacks (often literal stacks, at least at that time), we came across a cache of Korean paperbacks from the 1990s. As I tried to find a book there that could teach me something more about Korean culture, it started to look like all of them were just Korean translations of Western literature, but my language partner thought I could fulfill my criterion nevertheless. “If you want to learn about Korea, you should read this,” she said, pulling down a Korean-language edition of Hermann Hesse’s Demian.

I knew the name. Like a fair few other American readers of my generation, I’d encountered Hesse on an English-class syllabus, but in the form of Siddhartha, his 1922 novel about of a young Nepalese man’s  journey to enlightenment. Demian, his 1919 novel about a young German’s journey to self-realization, aided by his preternaturally wise friend of the title, never even came up, but here in Korea it has attained such cultural importance that critic Lee Dong-jin, host of the Red Book Room podcast, can make this pronouncement: “There are two kinds of people: those who read Demian, and those who don’t.”

Given the enduring presence of the book on their country’s school curricula, most Koreans fall into the former category. Siddhartha probably entered American middle- and high-school reading lists thanks to the enthusiasm of post-seeker English teachers, but why does an austere Swiss-German novelist like Hesse, even given his interest in what would’ve back then been called Oriental thought, have so much to say to Koreans? They certainly don’t hesitate to pay tribute to the man today: Hesse-themed cafés exist here (notably in Paju Book City), and references to his work appear in even the most mainstream media: the boy band BTS, for instance, claims to have based their song “Blood Sweat & Tears” (whose music video now nears 150 million views on Youtube) on Hesse’s teachings.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.