Archive for the ‘James Hilton’ Category

Lost Horizon by James Hilton ~ 1933. This edition: World’s Best Reading Series, The Reader’s Digest Association, 1990. Illustrated by Robert Andrew Parker. Afterword by Warren Eyster. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-89577-361-9. 191 pages.

 

Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door
I had to find the passage back to the place I was before
‘Relax’ said the night man,
‘We are programmed to receive.
You can check out any time you like,
But you can never leave…’

Remember the 1997 song ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles? Well, roll four decades or so back, and you could conceivably apply some of those iconic lyrics to James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, in particular the refrain about ‘What a lovely place, what a lovely face…’ And that last verse. Brrr…

Okay, maybe the parallels aren’t that close, really. ‘Hotel California’ is said by those who should know (the writers) to be all about the loss of innocence and the seductions of the high life (with all its connotations) connected to fame, while Lost Horizon, according to Warren Eyster’s afterword in my edition, is a metaphorical utopia offered as an an emotional escape hatch to a readership consisting of those deeply scarred by the Great War and now going through the Great Depression, with another war looming on the horizon.

Yeah, that gets deep, doesn’t it?

So let’s back up some, and take a look at the novel.

It’s 1930 or thereabouts, and away off in Afghanistan, where a local revolution has triggered the evacuation of the eighty or so Europeans resident in the city of Baskul. The area’s British Consul, Great War veteran Hugh Conway, his wet-behind-the-ears Vice-Consul Charles Mallinson, American businessman Henry Barnard, and a stray missionary, Roberta Brinklow, are all fortunate enough to be alloted seats on a luxurious, high-altitude-equipped airplane originally built for an Indian rajah.

Some way into the flight, strange things begin to happen. Their pilot, face masked with flying goggles and helmet, turns out not to be the expected fellow Caucasian, but a man of Asian countenance. Looking down, instead of the plains of Peshawar, there are snow-capped peaks, and as the flight continues and attempts are made to query the pilot on just where the heck are they, a revolver is produced and brandished in a businesslike way.

The plane sets down on an isolated airstrip, is refueled by an Asian crew, and takes off again. Where are they going? Are they being kidnapped to be held for ransom?! The unflappable Conway refuses to be distressed; since the war he has cultivated a demeanour of calm verging on apathy, hence his appointment to the backwater of Baskul versus a more lively location. His continued coolness sets the tone, but for occasional outbursts by the volatile Mallinson, which helps to maintain order when the pilot crash lands the plane on a rocky outcrop surrounded by vast peaks and promptly expires.

Now what?

Not to worry, for here comes a group of rescuers, the litter-born Chinese postulant-lama Chang and a group of useful locals, who escort the stranded travellers to a nearby lamasery, “Shangri-La”, perched over an astonishingly fertile Tibetan valley, with the massive mountain Karakal (“Blue Moon”) looming in the background.

Things just keep getting weirder, as the stranded travellers discover that though they are most welcome to settle into the unexpectedly lavish quarters assigned to them by Chang, there seems to be some difficulty about formulating plans to travel out of the mountain valley to India. Direct questions are met by evasively polite answers, and Mallinson in particular grows increasingly agitated as the days pass by.

Conway, on the other hand, decidedly welcomes this respite from the troubled outside world. Miss Brinklow settles down, too, occupying herself with the study of Tibetan in order to communicate her message of sin-needing-salvation to the heathens she has found herself amongst. As does Mr. Barnard, who cultivates a cheerful attitude and greatly enjoys his escorted trips down to the village, where he presumably indulges in some mild carousing with the local women-of-easy-virtue.

After some gentle scene-setting, the secrets of Shangri-La are slowly revealed to Conway by interviews with the incredibly (and I do mean incredibly) aged High Lama, who communicates with a combination of perfect English and mental telepathy, and a vital decision is faced by our protagonist and his companions. To stay is so easy…the valley is so secluded…the world outside is so troubled…

Most of you probably know how this plays out, but in case you don’t, I’m going to leave you there. Read this for yourself, in the interests of cultural literacy if nothing else. It’s a slender novel, a quick read, and though you may find (as I did) that there is little of substance to really grab on to, the general effect is curiously memorable.

Here I have to admit that though I don’t exactly dislike James Hilton’s style, I do find it occasionally underwhelming, and this is true of my response to Lost Horizon, though it was an astounding bestseller in its time, inspired at least two movies, brought the term “Shangri-La” into our vocabulary, and remains in print and presumably selling well today.

I model myself on early-in-the-novel Conway, refusing to get too worked up about it all. Hence my moderately positive rating: 6.5/10.

Oh! I forgot to mention the girl.

There’s also a mysteriously ageless (hint hint) girl.

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