Book Report: Lost Horizon
31 December 2004, 12:47 PM
Your Humble Blogger has somehow never read Lost Horizon, so when I happened to discover it nestled among short stories in a collection called More Stories to Remember, edited by Thomas Costain and John Beecroft, I thought it was pretty much time.
It’s a strange experience, reading something that has seeped so thoroughly into our culture. For one thing, I expected the travelers to have some reaction when told the name of the lamasery in which they sheltered. It wasn’t just that, though, it was a sort of total familiarity. With the characters (the older, war-weary Englishman, the young energetic Englishman, the American (who is Not what he Seems) and The Woman. And the enigmatic monk, of course. With the plot points, the ludicrously fertile valley high in the Tibetan mountains, the revelation of the three hundred year old lamas, the refusal to let the westerners leave, the drugged berries, the eventual escape, the attempt to return. It was like reading a book when you’ve seen the movie, only I haven’t seen the movie, I’ve just seen a few million references.
There was enough there to startle me, though. I hadn’t thought about it specifically as a book set between the wars, which clearly meant that I was missing the point. The main character was burnt out and possibly driven insane by his experience in the trenches, and the novel focuses on his extraordinary passionlessness. It is that detachment that makes him fit in so well in Shangri-La; it is observed that at forty he has the demeanor of a man of a hundred and fifty or two hundred. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, if that observation were the germ of the whole book. That is, I supect James Hilton created Shangri-La to draw attention to the trench warfare veteran, rather than the other way around.
The other thing that had somehow dropped out of the zeitgeist as I picked it up was that the magnificent library at Shangri-La exists not to amuse and edify the monks but to preserve its contents against the inevitable war which will make rubble of all the cities of the earth. When the monks reveal this, our protagonist immediately agrees to it; it is obvious to him, to the author and to the reader that such a war is in fact inevitable. Oddly enough, I grew up with the same we’re-all-doomed attitude, which due to age and circumstance I have mostly abandoned. I wonder whether my Perfect Non-Reader will grow up with a similar cloud, although her impending destruction would likely come not from “conventional” bombs or nuclear winter but out of the exhaust pipes of cars. At any rate, that moment in the book totally erases any hint of optimism that the premise might imply, although to be honest there aren’t many such hints from the beginning.