by James Hilton
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
James Hilton's Lost Horizon is assured a place in the annals of publishing history, not necessarily for its literary value, but for the simple fact that it was the first novel published in paperback in 1939 by Ian Ballantine. Even before the paperback came out, Frank Capra had turned it into a successful movie starring Ronald Colman. In 1973, a musical remake of the film was made. Of course, the book itself if very different from either movie version.
Hilton employs several traditional methods in his story. The novel opens in a gentleman's club in Berlin where four Englishmen have met for the evening. Talk turns to a plane hi-jacking which had occured in Baskul, India the previous year. When the men realize they all knew one of the kidnap victims, Hugh Conway, the conversation briefly touches on his probable fate. After the group breaks up, one of their number, the author Rutherford, confides to another that he has seen Conway since the kidnapping and goes on to provide a manuscript accounting for Conway's experiences.
Conway is among four kidnap victims, the others being Mallinson, his young assistant who is anxious to get back to civilization, Barnard, a brash American, and Miss Brinklow, an evangelist. Conway himself rounds out the group as an established diplomat and stoic. When the plane crashes in the Kuen-Lun Mountains, the quartet is rescued and taken to the hidden lamasery of Shangri-La.
Hilton is stingy in letting out the secret of Shangri-La, which helps build the tension in this novel. Mallinson's attitude towards Shangri-La makes his actions somewhat targeted, while the rest of the group, while not as flamboyant, also telegraph their eventual course of action.
Lost Horizon is not, of course, an adventure novel. It is more cerebral than that. The monks at Shangri-La believe in a philosophy which is a mix of Christianity as brought to the valley by the eighteenth century French priest Perrault (also the name of the French fabulist who compiled fairy tales such as "Sleeping Beauty") and the Buddhism which existed before Perrault's arrival. The motto of these monks could best be summed up as "Everything in moderation, even moderation."
The valley of Shangri-la is a peaceful place, taking from the world around it, but remaining aloof from all the negative actions of that world. Although idyllic, it is not the paradise of the Bible, nor of any Western philosophy, invoking instead much that is Eastern. The dichotomy between the world outside the valley and the society which Hilton envisioned is brought into even starker contrast by today's knowledge that a war much worse than the one Conway fought in, would engulf many regions of the world less than a decade after Hilton wrote the book. Hilton foresaw another great war and mentions it as a vague prophecy in the book.
One very telling moment comes when Miss Brinklow decides to attempt to understand the religious beliefs of the valley's residents. Chang, the lama-in-training assigned to be their tour guide, explains that the lamas "devote themselves. . . to contemplation and to the pursuit of wisdom." "But that isn't doing anything," Brinklow complains, expressing a Western viewpoint. Chang calmly agrees, "Then, madam, they do nothing." Chang does not attempt to argue with Brinklow nor sway her to his point of view in any way. When she announces her intention of converting the monastery's followers, the lama's neither stand in her way nor help, they merely allow her to do as she will.
Lost Horizon is the type of book written to make the reader think. Even at the very end, when everything seems to be settled, Hilton throws the reader a curve ball, causing them to wonder whether Conway's memories of Shangri-La are real or merely the result of shock and exposure. And, if they are real, does the secret guarded in Shangri-La really exist or was it merely a fairy tale like those told by a different Perrault?
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