Shangri-La: a Lost Horizon?

Shangri-La was a name that evoked mysterious zings and inspired me to read James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.

Shangri-La is a recondite lamasery located at Blue Moon, a remote and idyllic valley surrounded by majestic Tibetan mountains. It is the unexpected destination of four travelers on board an airplane that is supposed to evacuate them from Baskul, which is on the brink of a revolution in 1931, to Peshawa. Adventure of the four travelers, Hugh Conway, a British consul, Mallinson, Conway’s vice-consul, Barnard, an American, and Miss Brinklow, a British missionary, begins when they realize their airplane is hijacked and they are taken instead over the Himalayas towards Tibet. The airplane crashes near Shangri-La and the impostor pilot dies but the travelers survive.

The four new comers find accommodation at Shangri-La surprisingly well-to-do and modern. While Chang, a Chinese man who is a lama in-training and their point of contact with authority of the lamasery, receives them hospitably and converses with them eloquently and freely in general matters, he keeps his lips sealed about why they have landed at Shangri-La, calmly and politely declining to answer certain questions and fending off Mallinson’s exasperation.

The group does gain hope from Chang’s revelation that porters are due to arrive in two months. As each deals with the waiting in mode characteristic of their dispositions, they learn about each other, explore Shangri-La, make discoveries and form resolutions abiding to their values and situations. Barnard, the American, who turns out to be a wanted fugitive by American government due to financial fraud, is happy to be thus harbored and wants to exploit the rich gold deposit at the valley. Miss Brinklow avails herself to the extensive library, delves into studying multiple languages and resolves to stay and convert the people of Shangri-La. Mallinson detests Shangri-La as a prison but falls in love with Lo Tsen, a beautiful Manchu girl who does not speak but plays the Harpsichord bewitchingly.

Conway is spiritually drawn to Shangri-La, its seclusion, serenity and philosophy of moderation. He becomes the chosen one and is exceptionally honored with series of meeting with the high Lama, Father Perrault, a French and founder of Shangri-La, and trusted with high secrets of Shangri-La. Shangri-La has the elixir that enables tractable ones to live into unthinkable long age. In fact Father Perrault himself is about three hundred years old. Father Perrault envisions impending human catastrophe, alluding to another world war, and prophesizes Shangri-La will be human’s last reserve. Conway’s weariness of war and chaos of the world in general, his wit and calm uncommon of his age recommend him to Father Perrault as his very successor.

One stormy night, Father Perrault reveals his wish for Conway and dies shortly after. The same night Mallinson reveals his plan to leave/escape Shangri-La. In fact, it is all arranged and Lo Tsen is waiting with the porters at their camp. He presses Conway to leave with him and scorns the allusion that Lo Tsen might be of much older age than she seems to be. He leaves after Conway refuses to go along but returns shortly after and beseeches Conway to help get him to the camp for he failed to conquer the treacherous cliffside defile, the only path to escape.

James Hilton created a plot and premise that offers everything that nowadays thrillers want. His writing however striped all swashbuckling and watered down its intensity to almost non-existent. It perhaps is more a cerebral statement. It commented on exhaustion and destruction of war, foreboded Second World War and expressed the longing to escape.

It couldn’t be more poignant that the same Middle East region is still deep in war and ravaged. I wish there is an end to disasters of all kinds, natural or manmade, soon.

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