Book 8: Lost Horizon: A Novel of Shangri-La
“I suppose the truth is that when it comes to believing in things without actual evidence, we all incline to what we find most attractive.”
Author: James Hilton
Publisher: Macmillan Publishers
I hope you’ve been having a fine day. I recently finished Lost Horizon, the eighth novel on my list, and I’m finally ready to write a review about it. Of all the sci-fi stories I’ve read so far, Lost Horizon is probably my least favourite. Now that’s not to say that it was bad, just that I’m not totally crazy about it as I am some of the other stories I’ve read. So let’s get right into the plot and what I think are the two major themes.
Plot & Narration
Lost Horizon is narrated by a character who did not witness the events but only hears/reads about them after the fact. I thought we were done with this style of narration, but nope! Basically we have a story within a story, with the embedded story being what we the readers really care about.
The novel is a post-war story about four people who get kidnapped and flown to a lamasery/paradise in Tibet known as Shangri-La. The four main characters are each different in their acceptance or non-acceptance of their situation, with the main character, Hugh Conway, totally accepting and being really rather pleased with Shangri-La.
As far as the plot goes, this is it. The main story takes place at Shangri-La, where Conway learns all the secrets of the lamasery from the High Lama. For example, the lamas enjoy insanely long lives. His foil is the character Mallinson, who hates having been kidnapped and is trying to leave the lamasery throughout the tale.
The story itself seems to me to be more of a guide to Buddhism, or perhaps, if you don’t want to label it, simply a guide to living a harmonious, balanced, moderate life. Much of the plot is Conway musing about how much he enjoys Shangri-La, how at peace he finally is after the war.
“He liked the mannered, leisurely atmosphere in which talk was an accomplishment, not a mere habit. And he liked to realize that the idlest things could now be freed from the curse of time-wasting, and the frailest dreams receive the welcome of the mind.”
The main thing I didn’t like about the story is that in the end Conway gives in to Mallinson’s urgings to leave. And leaves. And then spends his life (we think) trying to get back to Shangri-La. And we don’t know if he ever achieves this. I just found it odd that though throughout the whole story he’s so happy at Shangri-La, he just gives in to Mallinson and leaves. This is where the above quotation comes in (spoken by Conway). Mallinson doesn’t believe that the lamas have achieved such longevity. What seems to happen is that he sows the seeds of doubt into Conway’s mind about this so-called paradise.
“Believing in hot baths because you’ve had them is different from believing in people hundreds of years old just because they’ve told you they are.”
The last thing I’ll say about plot is that I’m not at all sure how Lost Horizon is a science fiction. It’s more a fantasy novel, but it has been put into the sci-fi genre.
One of the interesting themes of Lost Horizon is this idea that the lamasery is a paradise. According to the High Lama, everyone who stays at the lamasery lives for a very long time, hundreds of years in fact. They also have clairvoyant abilities. I think the reasons for this, if I’ve interpreted the book correctly (assuming there’s a correct way), is that the lamasery itself imbues these abilities, but also that the lamas live in such peace and harmony. They don’t do anything else all day long than what they’d like to do. They have no stresses in life at all and so can spend their days meditating, studying, creating, whatever they like.
But this paradise comes at a cost. Remember, our characters have been kidnapped. They have family and friends waiting back home. This is one of the costs of remaining at Shangri-La. No more boyfriends, girlfriends, wives, husbands, children, parents, friends, etc. This is fine for Conway, who seems to have been deeply traumatized by the war, but not so much for Mallinson, who wants to see his friends and family again.
What makes my life a paradise is precisely my friends and family. I certainly enjoy quiet contemplation, but my friends and family really fill up my mana. There’s no paradise without them.
Furthermore, it is implied by the High Lama and others that a really, really, really long life is a good thing. Just think of it, hundreds of years spent in quiet contemplation in a lamasery. For some this may very well be a paradise, and I could certainly benefit from such a sojourn, but not for hundreds of years.
Theme: Belief & Doubt
I think the other major ideas in the novel are belief and doubt, which we’ve already touched on above. Belief and doubt are represented by Conway and Mallinson, respectively. Conway accepts what the High Lama tells him about Shangri-La, while Mallinson does not, as evidenced by his hot baths quotation.
I find it really interesting that I too was totally on board with Shangri-La being a paradise where one can live hundreds of years and have clairvoyant abilities until Mallinson tells Conway what hogwash it all is. And then I thought to myself, “What a minute, Mallinson has a point here.” Just like that *snaps fingers*, Mallinson got me too.
How easy it is to sow the seeds of doubt.
“He [Conway] did not know whether he had been mad and was now sane, or had been sane for a time and now mad again.”
Once those seeds of doubt have been sown, it is very hard to believe again I find. However, the ending of Lost Horizon gives a major clue that it was all true. Even so, this all reminds me of the quotation from The Life of Pi, when Pi says,
“Doubt is useful. It keeps faith a living thing.”
Faith/belief are only what they are because of doubt. Otherwise whatever you have faith in would simply be fact.
There was no way for Conway to really know whether what the High Lama told him about Shangri-La was true except to stay there and find out for himself, which he didn’t. And as we find out, he spends the rest of his time trying to find his way back there.
Phew, for a novel I said I wasn’t crazy about it sure got me thinking. The main thing I still think about sometimes is whether Shangri-La by itself is supposed to imbue longevity and special abilities, or whether one’s belief and peaceful life lived there helps out too. I’m inclined to the latter seeing as how state of mind (though I didn’t explicitly mention it as a theme) is what Shangri-La is all about.
Also, the whole place has a very dreamlike quality, exemplified by the fact that when Conway leaves, he loses his memory of everything that happened at Shangri-La, only remembering the events after some time has passed. So did everything Conway believes happened really happen?
Ah, there goes pesky doubt again.
That’s all for now. Don’t miss my next review of At the Mountains of Madness.
Quotations: Hilton, James. Lost Horizon: A Novel of Shangri-La. Maryland: Wildside Press, 2012. Kindle Edition.