For years I had known about Shangri-La, supposed heaven on earth. However, the famed Tibetan monastery had never really piqued my interest. A couple of months ago, I stumbled across David Adams’s documentary, “The Road to Shangri-La,” and was immediately ensnared in the legend of a remote civilization, hidden within the Himalayas. I told myself that eventually, I would delve into the myth.
The other day, I acquired James Hilton’s book, Lost Horizon, and discovered that it was the sole progenitor of the tales of Shangri-La. My copy is a lightly used 1990 printing of the 20th-century classic. The hardcover book has a royal blue spine inlaid with gold lettering. Within the covers, a reader will find a cleanly rendered printing interspersed with several beautiful watercolor paintings by Robert Andrew Parker. While James Hilton was no genius, his work is pleasant to read and ushered me smoothly through the story.
Lost Horizon became a best-seller immediately after it was published. In the fallout of the Great War and the current ravages of the Great Depression, a mythical tale of an exotic utopia was extremely appealing. My preconceptions of the perfect life sustained within Shangri-La began to falter as I progressed through the book. Perhaps, the book cannot appeal to people like me since I am from another age. Because as I listened to the experiences of visitors to Shangri-La, the word that continually formed in my mind was “hellish.”
The book starts with the hijacking of an airplane by its pilot. When the plane flies into the treacherous Himalayas, the pilot crashes and is found dead in the wreckage. The survivors: learned British officer Conway, his young colleague, Mallinson, American businessman Barnard, and missionary Brinklow, are met by a procession of monks who take them to the monastery. Once there, they are treated graciously as guests. However, questions about their situation are rebuffed, their host, Chang, saying, “I regret, sir, that you have touched upon a matter which I may not discuss.” Subsequent attempts to secure a means to leave the monastery are dismissed, as there is seemingly always another delay. As the pages turn, the enchanting Himalayas start to seem less like scenery and more walls to a lofty cage.
The guests are given a tour on the second day at the monastery and observe a young Chinese woman playing the piano. Chang, when asked if the residents of the monastery ever have disputes about women, he replies, “Only very rarely, because it would not be considered good manners to take a woman that another man wanted,” elaborating with, “… it would be good manners on the part of the other man to let him have her, and also on the part of the woman to be equally agreeable.” The enlightened priesthood seemingly treats the female residents like property made even more apparent when Chang states that the girl previously seen playing the piano would, for the good of newcomers, satisfy their, “certain desires.”
When Conway is taking a late-night stroll, he hears chanting below him in one of the deep valleys that lie adjacent to the monastery. He manages to overhear some of the monks who whisper to one another, “They have buried Talu … he died outside … He came through the air over the great mountains with a bird to hold him.”
Conway receives a summons to a strange complex he describes as a “steam-heating plant,” where he appears before the High Lama. The Lama answeres all of Conway's questions and reveals that he ordered the kidnapping of the group to replenish the monastery's waning population, further explaining that once a person arrives in Shangri-La, they can never leave.
Soon after, the Lama again summons Conway, where he tells Conway that he will die and that Conway must replace him and lead the monastery in the upcoming centuries. The Lama regards Shangri-La as a “single lifeboat riding in the seas of a gale,” and informs Conway that the purpose of the monastery is to come down out of the mountains after the apocalypse and to save the unfortunate populace from a modern “Dark Age.”
After the meeting, Mallinson grabs Conway stating that they are going to escape Shangri-La and that the piano-playing girl is already waiting for them on the trail.
I am not sure what I was expecting from Lost Horizon. Perhaps I was expecting a mystical Himalayan tale like the one I experienced when I read The Life of Milarepa. Instead, I got a look into a society that, to me, most closely resembles a cult. The monastery captures people to stave off extinction. Women are commodities. The leader is comically being kept alive by a strange pressure chamber that seems like it could come out an action movie and plans to outlive the apocalypse to bestow their infinite grace and wisdom onto the unenlightened populace. I am glad that I purchased the 1990 Readers Digest version as the hardcover, printing, and illustrations added much to my experience. In the end, I enjoyed the book and will be glad to put it onto my shelf.