Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lost Horizon, by James Hilton

A coincidence, I presume, gave us two books this month whose central plotline begins in Afghanistan. In both books, Afghanistan is (or becomes) a place of turmoil, revolution, and man's inhumanity to man. In both cases, the central character escapes to a place so distinct it might as well be another world.

Unlike Amir in The Kite Runner, who must return to deal with his past, Conway in Lost Horizon seems to have left everything behind. Indeed he is required to leave everything behind. Shangri-La takes all prisoners.

The Kite Runner
suggests that human action--whether a personal rescue or American bombs--can make some difference in the turmoil of the world. Lost Horizon suggests the only escape is in an inaction of sorts, concealment and preservation while the world outside lays itself waste. The conflict in Afghanistan is only a prelude to an imminent worldwide cataclysm (which did come, though it was not as catastrophic as the characters imagined).

Shangri-La reminded me a bit of Rivendell, with the long lives and the focus on preservation of what was good in the past. But Mallinson was right; there was something unwholesome about the place. I'd love to visit Rivendell for weeks on end, but I don't think I'd want to spend more than a four-hour tour in Shangri-La. People were not meant to live so long or do so little with so little conviction.

I do have a little sympathy with the mission of Shangri-La, though. Rather than hoping to live on and hold the memory of good things past myself, I hope to pass them on to my children. (A category Shangri-La apparently eschewed.)

As an adventure story, a what-if story, it was a fun read. I did feel like the plot fell apart at the end, though, with a rather contrived reason for escape just to justify the frame story that gets the tale back to the outside world.


At 6:17 PM, Blogger Framed said...

I read Random Harvest by James Hilton earlier this year and loved it. Lost Horizon sounds completely different. Wasn't there a movie based on this book? I think I will read The Kite Runner and skip Lost Horizon.

At 12:17 PM, Blogger Rose said...

Yes, yes, all the mysticism and relatavism make for a false worldview. We are supposed to be salt and light, not merely crouch down and hide from danger. From a Christian perspective the vision of Shangri-La is completely untenable, and the book's attitude towards Christianity - a la Miss Brinklow - is downright patronising.

But it's the magical telling of the story that captivates me every time. The mystery that underlies the unfolding of destiny, the 'chance' purpose that brought them there, the interaction of the characters and their gradual adaptation to the surroundings, the time-twist and history puzzles - all these make for a beautiful plot, even if the book is actually rather slow on the action front. Add to all that a liberal dash of British slang and a denoument scene that so aptly captures the intersection and overlap of two worlds, and I'm hooked.

I love reading this story. It has such an intense, dreamy quality to it. 'Karakal means "Blue Moon."' 'Because, my dear Conway, I am going to die.' 'He was doomed to flee from wisdom and be a hero.' Loads of great lines.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Carrie said...

Ha! It WAS a coincidence that they were selected for the same month. I'm picking up my copy of Lost Horizon from the library today.

At 12:41 PM, Blogger Carrie said...

I just finished it. When I started it, it reminded me of a little of A Toast to Tomorrow and then a little bit of Beau Geste, which I then realized, coincidentally, were all suggested by Rose. At this point, I wasn't surprised that you liked this book, too!

I agree with everything everyone said and will have little to add beyond that.

I did not like the way that Hilton dealt with Christianity. I thought the line that was the most appalling in the entire book was the High Lama's remark about the end of all religions when he is telling Conway that he is going to die. He says, " . . all our religions display a pleasant unanimity of optimism." That is something that can't be true if Christianity is.

I don't have any knowledge of Hilton's personal beliefs so I can't really comment very far on that score.

I enjoyed the book in part but was terrifically relieved when it was over with. There was something distinctly unnatural about Shangri-La and I wouldn't want anything more than a 4 hour tour either, Karen. Thanks for your initial post!

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Queen of Carrots said...

So, Rose, did you feel like the end made sense? It just seemed to me like if Mallinson had fallen for the girl there, he would have less, not more, reason for wanting to escape. And then why did she want to? Assuming the legend was true, wouldn't she know better than to try to leave? (Why didn't *Mallinson* ask her how long she'd been there--through an interpreter, naturally?)What exactly would have been the problem with them staying together, what with everyone's "moderate" approach to morals? Surely it would have been less risky. And I still don't see why Conway decided to *leave* rather than just--at most--escort Mallinson across the pass and come back.

The descriptions were quite vivid, and I agree with you as far as the rest of the plot goes. I was just disappointed in the ending.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger Rose said...

Well, that's part of the allure of the book - the elusive mystery and the constant 'What ifs.' Maybe she didn't believe the legend - maybe she had lost track of time and didn't know how long she'd been there. Maybe she didn't know what would happen if she left the valley. Mallison, we know, hated it there and wouldn't have been content to stay, even if he had the girl's love.

I think Conway's decision to leave with Mallison makes sense, given the conflict and confusion so eloquently painted in his own mind. He has fallen under the spell of the Blue Moon, but another part of him - the cynical, heroic part - still doubts all that myth and legend and operates under practical logic. The whole not knowing whether you were made before and now are sane, or vice versa, I can relate to very well, in any situation when I thought one thing and then further evidence sheds light on something and I have to grapple with the fact that my facts are all upside-down. It's very confusing and disconcerting to one's worldview, and when you have to make snap decisions under such pressure - well, no wonder Conway decided to do the patently sensible thing.

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