Lost Horizon by James Hilton
Created: Thu Jun 14 08:43:28 2012 | Last modified: Thu Jun 14 11:09:02 2012
"Lost Horizon" by James Hilton is the classic tale of the lost vale of Shangri-La, the mythical paradise on Earth, and how four refugees from the outside world find themselves unwilling guests in the place. The story is set in the 1930s - those tension-filled years between the World Wars and is indeed a compelling commentary on contemporary culture and values of the times.
The bare story simply is this: British ruled Afghanistan is in the throes of rebellion and Baskul is being evacuated. Amidst this tension, four foreigners board an Indian Maharaja's plane to travel to a relatively safer haven, Peshawar. The first is the British Consul, Conway a man in his mid-thirties. The second is his young assistant, Mallinson. The third is a mysterious American gentleman named Barnard and the fourth is an elderly lady missionary Miss Brinklow. However, the plane has been hijacked by an unknown pilot and they are taken on a wild ride across the Himalayan mountains and into Tibet. Eventually the plane crashes, the pilot dies and they find themselves in the most desolate region of Tibet surrounded by the wildest mountains. The travellers find themselves faced with the prospect of death by cold and starvation when they are met by a providential search and rescue party headed by a Buddhist Monk. Soon enough it becomes clear that there is a purpose behind all these events. Eventually the travellers reach the Vale of Shangri-La where they are accommodated as guests. What happens to them, why they are brought to Shangri-La, and what is the purpose of the monastery is explored in the rest of the novel.
However, Lost Horizon is much more than a mere adventure mystery novel. It is almost an allegorical tale of human life, culture, and the conflict between the material world and the spiritual one; the mad rush of the industrial world as against the serenity and peace of a bygone era; the clash between eastern philosophy and western materialism; the struggle between hot-blooded youth constantly seeking some kind of action and struggle and the wisdom of experience that counsels caution and prudence. Conway, the central character, is a highly sensitive, intelligent, stoic and somewhat spiritually inclined man who has seen much of the world, and yet world-weary, worn of passion and slightly disillusioned. His assistant Mallinson is the opposite: young and inexperienced, insecure, hero-worshipping, hot-headed, with a passion for life and love, possessing simple schoolboy ideals, traditional values and a strong inclination to act immediately and impulsively in the face of overwhelming odds. Miss Brinklow the missionary, is level-headed, composed, full of fixed and rigid ideas of religion, morality and God, inclined to be dismissive of religions other than her own - and yet strangely sympathetic and kind. The fourth of the lot, Barnard is a typical opportunistic modern fortune-hunter tossed around by the winds of fate and yet somebody who is ready and willing to accept the most unexpected crisis with good natured humour and equanimity. How these values clash with the philosophy of Shangri-La, that of "moderation in everything" and the aspirations for wisdom and higher living is explored in depth by the author.
The novel is long and descriptive but not stiflingly so. The author has an extraordinary knack for capturing subtle atmosphere and as a result, the entire novel has a dream-like quality about it. The fact that the eventual fate of the four travellers is not fully revealed at the end only makes it all the more intriguing and fascinating. Whether Shangri-La exists or not, the reader gets a glimpse of an other world where a simple folk live in complete isolation, harmony and peace, surrounded by beautiful nature and enjoying a tension-free life with time for life, leisure, meditation and pursuit of happiness and spiritual wisdom and ruled by a benevolent monastic order. Even at the end of it all, when the narrator meets his friend to discuss the story of Shangri-La, as revealed by Conway, the reader is left with only the dream. The fact that the author doesn't reveal much about Shangri-La except through a single source, the Llama-in-waiting Chang, adds to this feeling. Conway's meetings with the High Llama reveals something of the background and history of the place, and yet is still sketchy and unconvincing. The end result is that Shangri-La is a pleasant and dreamy mystery.
The author's narrative technique is compelling but slow and deliberate which strangely suits this kind of a tale. The introduction to the main plot, via the prologue, is quite effective and adds to the remoteness and mystery of the main tale. The principal character, Conway, comes across as a man who is highly intelligent and sensitive, mentally scarred by his experiences as a soldier in the First World War with a world-weariness that allows him to completely accept Shangri-La's serene reality in preference to the reality of the harsh, remorseless, supremely materialistic, ceaselessly (and sometimes meaninglessly) active and cruel world outside. The constant struggle between Conway, the dreamer, and Mallinson, the man of action, and the values they stand for is what makes this story more an allegory than anything. And typically there are no clear cut answers. The reader is to make up his/her own mind on Shangri-La and the reality that it represents. The climactic scene where Mallinson meets Conway on the night when the High Llama dies, to convince Conway on the need to urgently leave Shangri-La for good is the supreme irony but feels a bit forced.
On a lower level, this novel is still a good mystery adventure novel though slow-moving and not very action-packed. The author's preference for a heavy narrative style overlaid with the thematic overtones will put off some readers, as will the heavily caricaturized characters, each of whom stand more for certain ideas and ideologies than as individual, well-rounded human beings. There are several plot holes that are slightly unsatisfactory. For example, the explanations for the plane hijacking and kidnapping is unconvincing and the circumstances that made it possible are too convenient, making it clear that it is a mere plot device. The details of how Shangri-La acquired all modern conveniences and became self-sufficient for all its inhabitants, being conveniently blessed with gold mines and yet unknown to the outside world, is blurred over and equally unconvincing. The final journey of Conway and his companion leaving Shangri-La is a bit tame but fits in with the overwhelming mood of unreality. In spite of all these flaws, the novel is still an easy and pleasant read.
All in all, this is the kind of novel for a moody, lazy Saturday afternoon. I rate it 8/10 because of its theme and atmosphere.