Sunday, 6 December 2015

Book of the Month: Lost Horizon (James Hilton)

Lost Horizon is one of those novels which were very popular in their times but are not talked about often these days. It rarely gets featured in lists such as ‘Modern Classics’, ‘1000 Books You Must read Before You Die’, ‘100 Greatest Books of the Twentieth century’ etcetera. Hilton, who died in 1954 at the age of 54 with liver cancer, is a largely forgotten name. Yet Lost Horizon is the novel that gifted English language a phrase which is widely used: Shangri-la, representing a secluded and tranquil utopia of great beauty and serenity.

The plot of Lost Horizon is simple. Four Westerners—three men and a woman—are being evacuated out of Baskul, a town in Afghanistan, as the revolt by the ‘locals’ against the British rule gathers momentum. The plane, which is supposed to take them to the (relative) safety of Peshawar, is hijacked and they are taken, instead, to a remote monastery somewhere in Tibet. The monastery, which is called Shangri-la, is situated in a valley—of extraordinary natural beauty—called The Blue Moon Valley. Shangri-la, its visitors learn in due course, is ruled by a benevolent autocracy of lamas. It is almost inaccessible to the outer world because of the difficult terrain. In the monastery the four Westerners encounter a world of tranquillity, peace and beatitude. The highest position one can achieve is of the High Lama. (Needless to say it is more difficult to achieve the high lamahood than get British citizenship.) The four Westerners discover soon enough that their arriving at Shangri-la was no accident; that they were chosen. Chosen for what? To replenish the dwindling population of the monastery, for a start. The High Lama also has more grandiloquent plans in his mind for one of the hijacked, a man called Hugh Conway. (Indeed Lost Horizon can also be viewed as the story of Hugh Conway, told in retrospect by the unnamed narrator of the novel, a neurologist, no less, who is a childhood friend of Conway.) The four Westerners react very differently, if a tad formulaically, to their situation. Conway, a veteran of the WW1—it is heavily suggested that the war has scarred him psychologically for ever—has spent the last fifteen years drifting from one uninspiring job to the next in British consulates across the globe. He finds himself settling rather easily in the non-demanding environment of Shangri-la. He wouldn’t mind spending the rest of his life in the monastery, which, he finds, to his surprise, is well equipped with all the comforts a European might expect. Bernard, the American amongst the group, also finds Shangri-la congenial; but for a different reason. ‘Bernard’ is the American’s assumed name; he is in fact a Wall Street fraudster who is on the run, having swindled more than a million dollars. He is unsurprisingly not in undue hurry to return to the outside world where he knows not—or knows only too well—what reception might await him. Ms Brinklow, the only woman in the group, is a missionary; and, like all the deluded missionaries, she decides that all her life was but a wait for this moment when she would be in Shangri-la and the Blue Moon Valley, so that she could bring the heathens to Jesus. That leaves Mallinson, the youngest of the group and Conway’s deputy in the British Consulate in India. Mallinson reacts to the prospect of staying in the remote lamasery as one might to an allergy. To say that Mallinson is unhappy in Shangri-la is like saying Hitler was a bit underwhelmed by the Jews. He finds Shangri-la creepy, the dilatory talks of their Chinese guide unendurable, and is chomping at his bits to catch the first available flight out. Except that there is no flight either coming in or going out of Shangri-la. Mallinson keeps on pestering Conway to ‘do something’ about the situation and is peeved, quite unreasonably—you can’t help thinking—, when Conway points out to him (reasonably) that given the situation nothing can be done. The remote lamasery is visited by porters from the outside world, once every few months, to provide it with supplies that would ensure that the high lamas would live in the style they have been accustomed to—there is no reason why you should not have hot bath just because you are living in the Tibetan wilderness. How do the lamas pay for all the comforts, which, at a conservative estimate, would be equivalent of a year’s revenue of an average Maharaja in the British India? They pay in gold—physical gold to be exact. (Did I forget to mention that the Blue Moon Valley also has a gold mine in it?) The Chinese guide who brings the four Westerners to Shangri-la after their plane crash-lands in the valley, informs them that the next batch of porters will arrive in a couple of months and the visitors, if they wish, can leave Shangri-la in their company. Only Mallinson declares his intention to take up this offer. Conway, in the meanwhile, is informed that the High Lama wants to see him, an honour unheard of, according to the Chinese guide, in the history of lamasery, as no resident—let alone a visitor—is allowed to meet the High Lama before he has spent a minimum of five years in the lamasery. A suitably impressed Conway is taken to the inner sanctum of Shangri-la where the High Lama lives. At this stage the narrative becomes a tad fantastic. The ancient lama—the wrinkles on whose face, if joined up, would go all the way to Lhasa—is literally ancient. He tells Conway that he is more than two hundred years old. How has he managed to reach such ripe old age? As they say, it is all in the air; plus some local drug with narcotic properties of which the lama has been availing himself every day for the past 200 years (which might explain his tranquil disposition). Nobody in Shangri-la is as old as they look; they are, at the very least, several decades older. For example, there is a Frenchman who was a pupil of Chopin and has, in his collection, a few kickass musical notes of Chopin not known to the outside world. And, by the way, none of the most recent additions to the population of Shagri-la would be going anywhere any time soon, although Conway is not to breathe a word about it to the others, especially Mallinson, who is prowling about looking more sore than a bear with a headache. Conway, who no doubt has insincerity as one of his many talents, colludes with the High Lama. Next comes the big surprise. The reason Conway is accorded a darshan of the High Lama so early in his stay is not a coincidence; neither is it a whim on part of the lama, who, I shall thank you to remember, is not going senile. Conway has been summoned because the old lama is finally going to kick the bucket. How does he know this? Because he is telepathic. He has discerned that Conway is the man best suited to succeed him. How does he know that? By dint of the same powers (telepathy). So it is all sorted. There are four additions to the dwindling population of Shangri-la. Agreed, one of them (Mallinson) is staying under duress, but, as the High Lama declares (not without reason), he has hundreds of years to come to terms with the knowledge that never again would he set foot in Piccadilly Circus. And one of the others (Conway) has agreed to take over the daily running of the lamacracy. What is the problem? The problem is Mallinson. He has been doing a bit more than just fizzing like a lightbulb about to go out. He has managed to get to know one of the Chinese residents of Shangri-la, who looks like she is 19. (He knows she is young because he has come to know her very intimately, if you get my drift.) And, as he tells Conway excitedly, the girl is willing to elope with him with the porters, who, by the way, have arrived. Mallinson is unconvinced by Conway’s assertion that the girl is probably 90 rather than 19 and that he, Mallinson, should really give a serious thought to living for the next two-hundred years in Shangri-la, contemplating life and doing everything in moderation. What will Conway do? Will he attempt an escape with Mallinson (which would also be a definite way to find out whether the old lama was telling him a porky about having lived for two hundred years), or will he take up the offer of the Chief Executive position at the Shangri-la trust? You will have to read the novel to find that out; I feel as if I have spilled enough beans already.

Lost Horizon, upon its publication in the 1930s, became hugely successful. It sold more than a million copies and was the first blockbuster novel of James Hilton, who had published a series of not very successful novels in the 1920s. It was also made into a popular Hollywood film of the same name starring Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson.

Reading more than 80 years after it was first published one can see the appeal of Lost Horizon at the time. The world had plunged into the Great Depression, and people were finding out (as we are doing now) that material wealth is ephemeral and not a guarantee to a peaceful, happy existence. Lost Horizon, with its depiction of the Eastern world as something serene and beyond the reaches—even comprehension—of the Western mind, probably appealed to people. (This is just a guess; I haven’t put this hypothesis to test.) Therein also lies (I think) the limitation of the novel. The view of the East as something mystical and un-tethered to the materialistic needs was probably one of the views of the East that was prevalent in the West, and Lost Horizon depicted a picture of the orient that answered to this (benign) stereotype. Viewed in this light Lost Horizon becomes yet another orientalist novel. There is also an unspoken assumption of the superiority of the Western culture throughout the novel. The lamasery might have been in the back and beyond of Tibet, but the lamas listen to the Western classical music (the High Lama prefers Mozart to Chopin); and they study renaissance texts as well as English novels of the nineteenth century (Bronte sisters get a mention). How did a lama sitting in a lonely monastery beyond the Karakorum mountain range come to know about Mozart and Chopin? He knows because he is a Westerner himself, a Frenchman. With a few exceptions, such as the Chinese guide and Mallinson’s Chinese girlfriend, the inhabitants of Shangri-la are Europeans. High Lama has discovered that the oriental races somehow can’t live to be 250; only the Westerners can do that. He also wants to put to test his hypothesis that Americans under suitable conditions would outlive everyone else; hence the hijacking of Bernard, never mind he is a wanted criminal. Next to nothing is said about the (local) residents of the Blue Moon Valley, presumably because they are redundant to the thematic development of the novel.

In Lost Horizon James Hilton created a world that, while it required suspension of disbelief on the reader’s part, gave a tantalizing glimpse of what some might consider as a higher order of existence, in a manner that was appealing to the Western mind. It is also a kind of adventure story—with its four Western protagonists venturing into the exotic and mysterious East—minus the edge-of-the-seat feeling one would normally associate with an adventure story. Mallinson is the only one who is not content to just chill out and soak in the Shangri-la experience; however, he does not actually do anything about his situation, other than repeatedly (and futilely) exhorting Conway to plan their escape, till almost the end of the novel. Hilton’s prose has the quality of hypnotic simplicity, which, while it has its allure, ensures that your adrenal glands are not overworked.  

Lost Horizon is a moderately entertaining novel. It may not be a masterpiece (hence its absence from all the lists mentioned at the beginning of this post), and the story-line is preposterous; but don’t be surprised if, upon finishing it, you wonder, if only for a few moments, how nice it would be to spend time (OK, not your whole life, especially if it is going to be in excess of 200 years) in Hilton’s Shangri-La.