Monday, May 4, 2015

Lost Horizon by James Hilton

Utopia found, but squandered
James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, published in 1933, was one of the most popular and bestselling books of the 20th century. It tells the utopian tale of a secret civilization hidden away in the mountains of Tibet. The narrative is bookended by a conversation between two Oxford alumni discussing an esteemed former classmate of theirs, “Glory” Conway. Conway is working as a diplomat for the British government in India when an uprising forces him to evacuate all white residents from the town where he is stationed. The plane on which he himself escapes, accompanied by three fellow passengers, makes an unscheduled landing deep within the mountainous terrain of Tibet. There the aerial castaways are greeted by a Chinese man named Chang, who leads them to a lamasery nestled within the majestic mountain crags overlooking an idyllic valley. Despite its extremely remote location, this mysterious lamasery, dubbed Shangri-La, is equipped with modern comforts and cultural artifacts from all over the world. Its lamas live a serene and cerebral existence, devoting their time to study, contemplation, and music. Though they are eager to return to civilization, the four foreign guests are informed that it will take some time to make arrangements for their safe departure, so they resign themselves, not altogether reluctantly, to an extended stay in paradise.

The first criteria for judging any utopian novel is whether or not you would really want to live in the utopia in question, or at least settle down for a prolonged visit. As far as Shangri-La is concerned, count me in. The problem with Lost Horizon, however, is that the story that Hilton builds around this utopia just doesn’t do justice to his fascinating creation. The setting far outshines the plot. Like many a utopian or lost civilization story, it takes half the book to get to Shangri-La in the first place, and once you’re there, the action is as sparse as the oxygen in the Himalayan air. The book does have its suspenseful moments, but every time the reader feels like the story is about to take off, Hilton brings the momentum to a dead halt in order to psychoanalyze Conway. Instead of reading descriptions of Conway’s laziness, indolence, passionlessness—whatever you want to call it—for countless page after page, I would have appreciated it if Hilton had illustrated his hero’s psychology through his actions. On the other hand, while Conway’s every twitch of eyebrow is examined ad nauseam, his three fellow passengers are almost as simply drawn as cartoon characters, including an American who says things like “pi-anno” (I guess we Yanks should be thankful that the “o” wasn’t traded for a “y”.) Most egregious of all is that the whole book hinges on a choice that Conway must make, yet the outcome of that choice was already revealed in the prologue.

Conway is an embodiment of the shell-shocked angst and careworn apathy of modern man as he emerged from the horrors of World War I. He has witnessed mankind at its worst, yet he foresees an even more terrible war, perhaps even an Armageddon, looming on the horizon. This encapsulation of the mindset between the two World Wars reminded me of another utopian novel, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, which shares many of the same faults as Hilton’s book. Both authors caution against humanity’s burying its head in the sand, no matter how attractive that proposition may be. Today’s reader is grateful for the historical perspective, but would much prefer to get lost in the intriguing mysteries of Shangri-La, if only Hilton would let him.
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