Lost Horizon by James Hilton

★★★★★ (5/5)

Perhaps the exhaustion of the passions is the beginning of wisdom.

This was an absolutely mesmerizing and compelling read! It narrates a tale of a utopian lamasery concealed within the majestic mountains of the Himalayas, bordering near Tibet. It is a tale of high fantasy, utopian indulgence and pure, unadulterated adventure which has the power to resonate with one’s spiritual and physical existence.

You see, my dear sir, one of the first steps toward the clarifying of the mind is to obtain a panorama of one’s own past, and that, like any other view, is more accurate in perspective

Synopsis

The novel opens in a bachelor’s club where four English gentlemen are meeting for drinks. The conversation stirs to a plane hijacking that had taken place in recent memory and all four men agree that they were acquainted with one of the passengers named Conway. Later, Rutherford, a novelist, discreetly tells our narrator that he happened to meet Conway and was beguiled by his disappearance and subsequent memory loss. Conway had narrated his entire tale of adventure to Rutherford which the latter had transcribed into a manuscript. Rutherford gives our narrator the manuscript to verify Conway’s astonishing story himself.

In 1931, four people are trying to escape political and social unrest in Baskul by boarding a plane which is headed for Peshawar. The passengers include Conway a stoic diplomat, his hot-headed, young secretary Mallinson, Barnard an excitable American and Miss Brinklow, a Christian missionary. The plane is hijacked and crashes in the farthest reaches of Tibetan plateau. Much to their dismay, the four people find themselves trapped and isolated by wilderness of nature, high peaks and strong winds with no trace of civilization for miles.

It was not an ordinary wind. It was not merely a strong wind or a cold wind. It was somehow a frenzy that lived all around them, a master stamping and ranting over his own domain

Soon enough, a group of rescuers come to their aid and take them to the lamasery which is buried between peaks of Karakul. Here, mystery and adventure commence as the four foreigners are unable to deduce as to why the plane was hijacked, if there was a sinister plan behind this or who or for what measures were they kidnapped. But more pressingly, the existence of a sublime building and its small Buddhist community nestled in an unknown and distant piece of land continues to be a conundrum. They are perplexed by tranquillity of its residents and Conway, Barnard and Brinklow pose many questions as to understand this unknown but wonderful world they have stumbled across. Mallinson, however, is keen on getting on their way and remains inquisitive upon the nature of their departure.

There came a time, he realized, when the strangeness of everything made it increasingly difficult to realize the strangeness of anything; when one took things for granted merely because astonishment would have been as tedious for oneself as for others

Conway’s intelligent intrigue in unveiling the secret of this lamasery is not fulfilled until much later into the novel. Would the four of them be able to escape this heaven on earth? This is the prevailing tension underscoring the story, upon which the author builds and heightens the reader’s curiosity. Clandestine nature of the monastery and its residents and Conway’s account of his adventures all tie well with the mysterious ending which leaves upon the reader to deduce its veracity.

It was so radiant, so serenely poised, that he wondered for a moment if it were real at all

The Lamasery

The peaks had a chill gleam; utterly majestic and remote, their very namelessness had dignity

Hilton delves into painstaking but vivid details of the landscape around the lamasery and sublime beauty of the institute itself. Whilst much of cultural action is done away with, through exquisite scenery we are introduced to the philosophy of monks residing at Shangri-La. Their surroundings have undoubtedly had a profound effect on them, changing course of their lifestyles and even age. Their mental health seems remarkable owing to a deep sense of recollection of old memories they possess.

The lamasery is by no means an ancient building. It is fitted with modern plumbing, a central heating system, a large library, music rooms with piano and food from the fertile valley. The Karakal peaks tower above the establishment, sheltering it from the world but many passes open into the valley which goes to show that drifters and wanderers are always welcome.

We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all kinds—even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself

Their religious philosophy “Everything in moderation, even moderation itself” seems to reflect their social and moral grounds of thriving in solitude, away from rest of the civilisation. The magnificence of landscape brings about a certain kind of splendour of isolation. As Conway observes Its atmosphere soothed while its mystery stimulated, and the total sensation was agreeable.”

The air, clean as from another planet, was more precious with every intake. One had to breathe consciously and deliberately, which, though disconcerting at first, induced after a time an almost ecstatic tranquillity of mind

They valley of Shangri-La remains physically and spiritually aloof from the negativity of the rest of the civilised world. Hilton prophecies the Second World War in the monk’ beliefs that a war engulfing vast regions would soon be upon them and amidst such turbulent and miserable times, their valley would remain the beacon of hope and enlightenment, of peace and spiritual prosperity.

“We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect. Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegancies of a dying age, and seeking such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent. We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath. Let us take what pleasure we may until that time comes.”

The monks’ chief preoccupation lies in pursuit of worldly and spiritual wisdom, enabling them to acquire a deeper and more profound understanding of their personal selves. They can be telepathic and absurdly considerate to one’s trials as demonstrated by Chang who rescues the quartet and introduces them to the many facets of the lamasery. When Miss Brinklow vows to convert the monastery’s followers to her own faith, Chang does not disagree with her. Neither does he take offence with Mallison’s impatience and brash remarks on their lifestyle. Their hospitality is unparalleled and so is their level of tolerance as they are all intensely and actively accepting of strangers from far off lands.

The inhabitants of our valley, for instance, feel that it is ‘not done’ to be inhospitable to strangers, to dispute acrimoniously, or to strive for priority amongst one another

This kind of indifference arises not from any destructive intentions but from the realisation of one’s inability to change world affairs in grand scheme of things. This ties in nicely with what the four foreigners try to uncover – why were they selected to stumble across this hidden gem? Was it a chance coincidence or a greater plan lay behind their abduction? Answers to these are given when Conway meets the High Lama, a man of great age and sagacity who explains the institution’s incredible history and who himself is enamoured by Conway’s stoicism.

We believe that to govern perfectly it is necessary to avoid governing too much

In such placid circumstances, notions of Time radically change. Monks live a carefully deliberated life which Miss Brinklow attributes as sluggish and leisurely. Here the dichotomy of the Western and Eastern world collide, with the former indulged in a race against time and the latter dawdling with time, allowing it to run its own course through fate.

He had suddenly come to realize a single facet of the promised jewel; he had Time, Time for everything that he wished to happen, such Time that desire itself was quenched in the certainty of fulfillment

With alterations in perception of Time come changes brought to the realm of memory. The monks are able to traverse through vast distances of their old lives and recall moments with great exactitude. Atmospheric cleanliness at such an altitude brings about clarity of mind which lends to liberating one’s thoughts of impurity and falsehood.

His memory was astonishing; it appeared to have escaped the trammels of the physical into some upper region of immense clarity

In a very telling conversation Brinklow has with Chang, she inquires as to what the lamas do. “They devote themselves, madam, to contemplation and to the pursuit of wisdom,” he replies. “But that isn’t doing anything,” she retorts to which Chang says “Then, madam, they do nothing.” Here once again, the irreconcilable differences between Western and Eastern philosophy in regards to “doing” manifests itself. The former enjoins practical forms of work, with tangible results usually directed at some form of achievement which can be further invested in either advancing one’s own mercenary ambitions or climbing the social ladder. Eastern philosophy is aimed at experiences, placing value on the inner self. This is personified by the monks and their lifelong quest in search for wisdom through indulging in simplest pleasures of life.

Characters

Much like in “Goodbye Mr. Chips”, Hilton has a penchant for drawing his characters with phenomenal detail which is also evident in this novel. All four foreigners are unique in their characterisation, their curiosity in regards to the establishment differs to one another yet compliments their general vocations of life. Their contradictory personalities bring about this tale of adventure to life.

Conway

It was his fate in life to have his equanimity always mistaken for pluck, whereas it was actually something much more dispassionate and much less virile

Conway cherishes a dispassionate and humble life. He is never too zealous about any prospect, nor does he look down upon potential adventure with pessimistic gloom. Out of all four, he perfectly embodies the monks’ philosophy of moderation. From realising that the plane had been hijacked to coming across the lamasery, his intrigue is never fanned by curiosity which seeks to displace the order of things. He allows events to take their own course and in doing so allows himself a similar fluidity. He is tolerant of Mallinson’s consistent anxiety in leaving their refuge and whole-heartedly accepts the hypocrisy of Barnard and Miss Brinklow’s stringent notions.

Mallinson

Mallinson is impudent and impulsive from the very beginning. These character traits can be attributed to his young age but do not fully explain away his persistent displeasure with the establishment. He makes curt remarks about the place despite being well taken care off. His life in England awaits him and he is impatient in resuming it with his fiancée. He is unable to come to terms with reality of what he witnesses, and willingly abstains from indulging in the beauty his circumstance has to offer. Mallinson becomes almost insufferable as the novel progresses, demonising his friends who no longer desire to leave the place.

Barnard

Americans, Conway reflected, had the knack of being able to say patronizing things without being offensive

Barnard is an exciting character but lacking in depth of either Conway or Mallison. Later in the novel he is shown to be a master criminal whose grand schemes brought about the downfall of Wall Street. With notice of his extradition issued in many countries, he assumes the new identity to escape imprisonment. He has a friendly disposition towards Conway and others even though Mallinson disregards him occasionally. He too finds solace in the refuge of Karakal and is inclined towards staying back.

It was curious to think of that heavy, fleshy, good-humored, rather paternal-looking man as the world’s hugest swindler

Miss Brinklow

Miss Brinklow’s character portrayal is shorter than the others but owing to her religious background, she assumes an important position. For her, Buddhist practices reflect indolence of mind and body and she avows to stay back in order to convert the residents to her own faith. She resorts to learning the Tibetan language and acutely observing their cultural lifestyle in order to better understand and communicate with them.

Chang

He was rather taken with this latest phenomenon, a Chinese who spoke perfect English and observed the social formalities of Bond Street amidst the wilds of Tibet

Chang is the monk who first receives these four strangers and extends to them an invite to shelter in the lamasery. He is quite secretive in what he uncovers regarding the monastery and its history, never allowing too much information to take over his guests’ uninterrupted curiosity. Yet, he unveils enough for them to be deeply excited about the prospect of staying here for the unforeseen future. He disregards Mallinson’s insults with a light-heartedness that even shames the latter at times and encourages the four of them to discover the riches of the establishment – a library with vast collection of tomes from all corners of the world, the heavily embellished rooms and deep and serene pools, the residents living in the valley and such. He forms an immediate affinity with Conway and recognises his shrewdness in approaching the mystery of Karakul.

The High Lama

On one of these sat a small, pale, and wrinkled person, motionlessly shadowed and yielding an effect as of some fading, antique portrait in chiaroscuro. If there were such a thing as presence divorced from actuality, here it was, adorned with a classic dignity that was more an emanation than an attribute

The High Lama to which only Conway is introduced is an elderly sage. His worldly existence is so old that he has almost faded into his surroundings. It is he from whom Conway learns the astonishing past as to how the lamasery came into existence in this wilderness and solitude. In divulging the secrets to Conway, the High Lama also asks of his loyalty to not speak of these to his friends. The High Lama is telepathic and only after long conversations is Conway able to deduce that he is the founder of this very establishment.

The whispering ceased for a moment, and to Conway, stirring slightly, it appeared that the High Lama had been translating, with fluency, out of a remote and private dream

The High Lama explains the nature and purpose of this lamasery built in such seclusion and details the events which would ultimately ravage the world. Amidst widespread pandemonium, the monastery would emerge solely to disseminate once again hope and wisdom which would have been crushed under lusts of war. He bequeaths to Conway the leadership of running the lamasery after his imminent demise and trusts him to carry on the ancient traditions of acquiring wisdom through solitude and contemplation.

We have no rigidities, no inexorable rules. We do as we think fit, guided a little by the example of the past, but still more by our present wisdom, and by our clairvoyance of the future

A Mystifying Ending

It came to him that a dream had dissolved, like all too lovely things, at the first touch of reality

The ending of the novel confounded me! From the very start it is clear that somehow Conway was able to come back to Chinese civilisation which is where Rutherford meets him. But it is unclear as to what makes Conway finally decide leaving a place he was so at home with. Naturally he seems to be the last of the four to ever walk out on such a heavenly place which suited all his temperaments and present and future ambitions. Yet when Mallinson implores him to escape, after putting up resistance at first, Conway eventually acquiesces.

At one instance, Chang tells Conway that the High Lama usually refrains from meeting newcomers this early on “Because, you see, it is a great strain on him to talk to the average newcomer. The mere presence of human passions is an unwelcome and, at his age, an almost unendurable unpleasantness.” And as soon as the High Lama confers the seat of leadership upon Conway’s shoulders, he passes away. Could it be that owing to High Lama’s telepathic abilities, he was able to envision Conway’s desertion which in one or another is guided by Conway’s admiration for Mallinson? And that, whilst Conway was able to be vastly dispassionate and removed from excitement of life, he cared for the boy too much and ultimately conceded to his demands, and that this passion manifested itself to the High Lama towards the end of his life and he died in its presence? This is surely a far-fetched idea, but upon my reading of the last chapter, this is all I could surmise.

The question of reality, if Conway actually experienced this adventure, is left upon the reader to deduce according to their personal understanding of the story. Had this been a grand flight of imagination, it would not explain Conway’s ability to play the lost pieces of Chopin. Neither would it justify Rutherford’s various findings when he went after Conway. But since Conway gives his account of the story to Rutherford, he can be considered an “unreliable narrator”.

I suppose the truth is that when it comes to believing things without actual evidence, we all incline to what we find most attractive

Another explication for Conway’s sudden change of mind can be attributed to the moment he discloses the secrets of the lamasery to Mallinson. The High Lama had confided the history and purpose of this establishment to Conway, trusting him to keep this information only to himself (it would be revealed to other three in due time). But in pursuing Mallinson’s change of heart to stay back, Conway reveals the secret thereby breaking the “spell” under which Conway was inextricably linked to this valley.

Concluding Thoughts

This is a story steeped in a mysterious adventure and adorned with the mystical. Reading this book is an experience of sheer loveliness and tranquillity, whereupon the cryptic world is only subtle in its manifestations. Hilton keeps the tension flowing, the reader is keen to know more but not coercive since the world of the lamasery is splendid and fully engrossing. One feels that upon learning the answers to myriad of questions, the spell would be broken which is reflective of the last chapter. It enamours the reader with richness of story-telling and navigating across unknown lands.

This is a highly recommended read for anyone seeking absolute delight of classics!


More of my favourite lines:

Rich Portrayal of Landscape

  • Watch the sunrise upon Everest, he had found the highest mountain in the world a definite disappointment. But this fearsome spectacle beyond the window-pane was of different caliber; it had no air of posing to be admired. There was something raw and monstrous about those uncompromising ice cliffs, and a certain sublime impertinence in approaching them thus
  • While he was still contemplating the scene, twilight fell, steeping the depths in a rich, velvet gloom that spread upwards like a dye. Then the whole range, much nearer now, paled into fresh splendor; a full moon rose, touching each peak in succession like some celestial lamplighter, until the long horizon glittered against a blue-black sky
  • As if the wind were whirling splinters of light out of the stars
  • Magnificent in the full shimmer of moonlight, appeared what he took to be the loveliest mountain on earth
  • Such virgin splendors merely emphasized the facts of isolation and danger
  • Something that had no romantic appeal at all, but a steely, almost an intellectual quality
  • Fringing the pool were posed a brazen menagerie of lions, dragons, and unicorns, each offering a stylized ferocity that emphasized rather than offended the surrounding peace

Characterisation

  • Slight touch of priggishness which I remembered in Wyland Tertius had not diminished with years
  • It was plain that he was reconciling the claims of compatriot courtesy and official rectitude
  • There was something rather Elizabethan about him—his casual versatility, his good looks, that effervescent combination of mental with physical activities
  • But besides all that, he was a man one simply didn’t make mistakes about—to see him once was to know him always
  • He was the sort of man who, being used to major hardships, expected minor comforts by way of compensation
  • It was during such a solitude, with his body sinking and his mind lifted to beatitude, that he had hoped to give up his soul
  • Perrault, if a little beyond such human passions as friendship or affection, was yet endowed with a rich benignity of mind which touched the youth as water upon a parched soil

Conway’s Character

  • There was also in his nature a trait which some people might have called laziness, though it was not quite that. No one was capable of harder work, when it had to be done, and few could better shoulder responsibility; but the facts remained that he was not passionately fond of activity, and did not enjoy responsibility at all
  • He faced facts nonetheless frankly because he did not trouble to enunciate them to the others
  • It was a pleasant prospect, but not one to sigh for in anticipation.
  • His liking for Chinese art was an affair of the mind; in a world of increasing noise and hugeness, he turned in private to gentle, precise, and miniature things
  • There was no doubt of one thing; he would be able to dine out on his yarn for at least a season. But would he enjoy it?
  • To tell his story in the past tense would bore him a great deal as well as sadden him a little
  • He could yield himself to love that was neither a torment nor a bore
  • He narrated rapidly and easily, and in doing so came again under the spell of that strange, timeless world; its beauty overwhelmed him as he spoke of it, and more than once he felt himself reading from a page of memory, so clearly had ideas and phrases impressed themselves

On the Impending War

  • “The whole game’s going to pieces.” Conway found himself remembering and echoing it with a wider significance than the American had probably intended; he felt it to be true of more than American banking and trust-company management. It fitted Baskul and Delhi and London, war-making and empire-building, consulates and trade concessions and dinner parties at Government House; there was a reek of dissolution over all that recollected world
  • The loveliest things were transient and perishable, and that war, lust, and brutality might someday crush them until there were no more left in the world
  • I saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy
  • And he perceived that when they had filled the land and sea with ruin, they would take to the air
  • The long talk, with its varying phases, had left him empty of all save a satisfaction that was as much of the mind as of the emotions, and as much of the spirit as of either; even his doubts were now no longer harassing, but part of a subtle harmony
  • Conway remarked with a smile: “I suppose you’re certain, then, that no human affection can outlast a five-year absence?” “It can, undoubtedly,” replied the Chinese, “but only as a fragrance whose melancholy we may enjoy.”
  • There will be no safety by arms, no help from authority, no answer in science. It will rage till every flower of culture is trampled, and all human things are leveled in a vast chaos
  • But the Dark Ages that are to come will cover the whole world in a single pall; there will be neither escape nor sanctuary, save such as are too secret to be found or too humble to be noticed. And Shangri-La may hope to be both of these

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • There was a quality in the air of Shangri-La— perhaps due to its altitude—that forbade one the effort of counterfeit emotion
  • The savor was slender, elusive, and recondite, a ghostly bouquet that haunted rather than lived on the tongue
  • Emulation is, after all, a young man’s spirit
  • The room was now a whorl of shadows with that ancient benignity at its center
  • Gives one the feeling that Time is like some balked monster, waiting outside the valley to pounce on the slackers who have managed to evade him longer than they should.
  • My friend, it is not an arduous task that I bequeath, for our order knows only silken bonds

Aphorisms

  • Putting up a fight without a decent chance of winning is a poor game
  • One is fortunate if, as on this occasion, a touch of novelty seasons the unpleasantness
  • Believe me, in arriving here the worst that can have happened is that we’ve exchanged one form of lunacy for another
  • I often think that the Romans were fortunate; their civilization reached as far as hot baths without touching the fatal knowledge of machinery
  • Yet to Conway it did not appear that the Eastern races were abnormally dilatory, but rather that Englishmen and Americans charged about the world in a state of continual and rather preposterous fever heat
  • To the demand of a wise man there is always a response
  • The first quarter-century of your life was doubtless lived under the cloud of being too young for things, while the last quarter-century would normally be shadowed by the still darker cloud of being too old for them; and between those two clouds, what small and narrow sunlight illumines a human lifetime!
  • And, most precious of all, you will have Time—that rare and lovely gift that your Western countries have lost the more they have pursued it
  • The excitement of love does not make for an easy surrender
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