Lost Horizon is a book I was quite embarrassed to never have read, mainly because I’ve actually visited the enterprising Chinese village of Zhongdian, which in 2002 won permission to name itself ‘Xiang Ge Li La’ after the fabled paradise. So when Jon suggested it to me that I should read it in Sikkim, I felt like it was time to remedy a longstanding omission. And I’m very glad I did – it’s a great book.
Lost Horizon centres on the twin enigmas of Hugh Conway and the mountain refuge of Shangri La. In the frame story of the prologue and epilogue, the unnamed narrator speaks with an old schoolfriend, Rutherford, who encountered an amnesiac Conway in Chung-Kiang (Chongqing. Once Conway recovered his memory on a steamer to San Francisco, Rutherford recorded his improbable tale: he and three others were kidnapped by a pilot while escaping a revolution in ‘Baskul’ and taken to peaceful, mysterious Shangri-La, a lamasery in the Kuen Lun mountains that turns out to be home to a mysterious community of gerontocratic sages who have sought to protect ‘every precious thing’ from the onslaught of violent modernity. There, it becomes increasingly clear, the four are to stay indefinitely.
For Conway, a veteran of the Western Front, being trapped in this earthly paradise is not such a bad thing. The once golden boy of public school and Oxford is now fatigued and disconnected; despite his ability to play the part of imperial hero when necessary, he has become a dispassionate observer of both his own life and of the madness of the world around him. He explains why to the High Lama “you can label me 1914-1918…I used up most of my passions and energies during the years I’ve mentioned, and though I don’t talk much about it, he chief thing I’ve asked from the world since then is to leave me alone.” While his fellow exiles Barnard and Miss Brinklow fill their hours with schemes of gold prospecting and missionary activity respectively, Conway’s yearning for refuge and peace chimes with the mission of the lamasery, which, it turns out, is self-consciously a sanctuary for all that is at risk of destruction from the mechanisation and brutality of the modern world, safeguarding “every precious thing…every book and picture and harmony, every treasure gathered through two millenniums” in anticipation of a future time when “the meek shall inherit the earth.”
The vision of Shangri-La is certainly seductive, from the stunning natural backdrop to the life of repose and scholarship practised by the lamas, who work “to be gentle and patient, to care for the riches of the mind, to preside in wisdom and secrecy while the storm rages without.” And Hilton, writing in 1933, is devastatingly aware of the coming storm of war – when the High Lama says the lamasery’s founder “foresaw a time when men, exultant in the technique of homicide, would rage so hotly over the world that every precious thing would be in danger,” it’s easy to see the shadow of fascism looking over the Tibetan paradise. Increasingly, the reader questions, why on earth did Conway leave this sanctuary to tell his tale to Rutherford on a steamer heading to San Francisco? Without spoiling the ending by revealing the answer, the book poses some interesting questions: is ‘paradise’ a prison or a refuge, and what responsibility does a man owe the world? The questions repeatedly raised by Rutherford over Conway’s mental state following World War I also add a further question; is Shangri-La real, or simply a refuge created by the damaged psyche of a war veteran?
I loved Lost Horizon, although I did find the character of Mallinson, the one exile who is unhappy with his enforced sojourn, a little too one-note hysterical, and felt that the unspeaking, ‘inscrutable’ Chinese piano player, Lo Then, relied a little too much on racial and gender stereotypes – aside from this, the book has aged well, and reads as quite progressive. It’s easy to see why Shangri-La has embedded itself so firmly into popular culture as a place of refuge, an earthly paradise that, like Conway at the novel’s end, we may be destined never to find.