I’m very happy with the way my reading is going so far this year. I’ve read some great books already and this is another one. Published in 1933, Lost Horizon is the novel which introduced into popular culture the idea of Shangri-La as a sort of earthly paradise. It’s a fascinating story and very absorbing – I started it on a Saturday and was finished by Sunday; at just over 200 pages it’s a quick read but also the sort of book that leaves the reader with a lot to think about after the final page is turned.
We begin with a prologue in which the narrator is having dinner with a novelist friend, Rutherford. The two find themselves discussing a mutual acquaintance, Hugh Conway, who had disappeared under unusual circumstances only to be discovered by Rutherford several months later in a hospital in China. Conway has been suffering from amnesia but as his memories start to return, he tells Rutherford a long and remarkable story.
During a revolution in Baskul, Conway, who was the British consul at the time, was evacuated by plane along with three other people. The plane was supposedly heading for Peshawar, but it never arrived and its four passengers were believed to be dead. What Conway tells Rutherfurd, however, is that the plane was hijacked and flown in a different direction, stopping once to refuel and finally crashing to the ground in a mountain valley somewhere in Tibet. The pilot was killed but the passengers survived. Seeking shelter at the nearby lamasery (a monastery for lamas) known as Shangri-La, the group asked for help to continue their journey to Peshawar, but as the days and weeks went by and no help arrived, Conway began to wonder whether their presence at the lamasery was really an accident – and whether they would ever be able to leave.
Shangri-La is a mysterious place; beautiful, but slightly eerie too, I thought. How was such a beautiful building constructed in such a remote location? Who installed the modern western plumbing and who brought the grand piano, the harpsichord and the books for the library, considering that the only way to reach the lamasery (unless you happen to make a crash-landing there) is on foot through the dangerous mountain passes? What is the secret of the lamas, who look so much more youthful than they really are? And where is Shangri-La, exactly? All Conway can deduce is that they have flown “far beyond the western range of the Himalayas towards the less known heights of the Kuen-Lun” and into the shadow of the mountain Karakal, or ‘Blue Moon’.
I found it interesting that Conway’s three companions have such different reactions to their enforced imprisonment in Shangri-La. Mallinson, Conway’s young vice-consul, reacts with anger and frustration, and with every day that passes he becomes more and more desperate to escape; the American businessman, Barnard, is hiding secrets of his own and is content to enjoy the hospitality of the lamasery while looking for money-making opportunities in the valley; and Miss Brinklow, the British missionary, wonders if this is a challenge sent by God and if she has been brought here to carry out His work. The characters (apart from Conway) are thinly drawn, but they serve their purpose in the story – and it could be said that Shangri-La is actually the most important character in the novel anyway.
Conway himself is in no hurry to go anywhere; he is intrigued by the lifestyle of the lamas and the atmosphere of serenity and peace. With his curious, contemplative nature, the philosophy behind the lamasery appeals to him and he becomes captivated by this mystical place where time seems almost to stand still and the pressures of everyday life can be left behind. It is obvious from the framing story set up in the prologue that Conway does, for one reason or another, leave Shangri-La, but it is not at all clear how or why that will happen and this kept me in suspense and kept me turning the pages.
Lost Horizon was another read from my Classics Club list. I am coming to the end of my list now and will soon be putting another one together; I’ll have to think about including one or two more books by James Hilton – probably Random Harvest or Goodbye, Mr Chips. Has anyone read them?