A World Like No Other—Shangri-La

Lost Horizon by James Hilton
Lost Horizon by James Hilton

The first book that always comes to my mind is Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1900-1954). It is a book as fascinating as any written ever. Lost Horizon comes tantalizingly close to the concept of an ideational world. Such a world that may exist as a refuge from the harshness of modern life. The novel exploded on to the literary scene in 1933 and was made into a movie, also called Lost Horizon by Frank Capra in 1937.

It also won the author the prestigious Hawthorden Prize in 1934. In fact, this book is also known as the book that started the “paperback revolution”.

In popular imagination, the novel gave a new word, a new place called Shangri-La. It is at this lamasery that Hugh Conway finds refuge, inner peace, love and a sense of purpose. You can also watch this really insightful PBS documentary on Shangri-La: The Lost Treasures of Tibet.

The novel has some really memorable passages of enchanting prose:

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.

This is visual writing at its best. If I were teaching a creative writing course, I would take this passage as an example of how to write a novel. Here, James Hilton is looking at the world from the protagonist, Hugh Conway’s eyes.

And as they go up the mountains to the lamasery…

About a couple of miles along the valley the ascent grew steeper, but by this time the sun was overclouded and a silvery mist obscured the view. Thunder and avalanches resounded from the snowfields above; the air took chill, and then, with the sudden changefulness of mountain regions, became bitterly cold. A flurry of wind and sleet drove up, drenching the party and adding immeasurably to their discomfort; even Conway felt at one moment that it would be impossible to go much further.

I have read and re-read Lost Horizon many times over. Every time, what amazes me is also that James Hilton does not write a very voluminous book and yet manages to convey a very powerful story, while painting a beautiful landscape away from the raging ills of society.

Lost Horizon (film) by Frank Capra

This was the film, Lost Horizon by Frank Capra. One of the most expensive movies made. The film’s final cost, including promotional advertising, was $2,626,620 and it took a lot many years to recover its costs. However, the movie itself was very impressively produced. Frank Nugent of the New York Times had called it ‘one of the 10 best films of the year’. The original prints had got damaged and the movie was restored and reissued in 1973.

A screen grab from Lost Horizon (1973)
A screen grab from Lost Horizon(1973)

A large number of people prefer the moving image, the way a novel has been rendered on the screen. It would depend on how it was done. Here, the film was impressive too. And sometimes, we do have our personal preferences. Somehow, I found the novel haunting too.

There have been several million copies of the novel sold, making Lost Horizon, one of the enduring and a much-loved novel of the twentieth century. The novel does retain its place as a literary text. Lost Horizon is the stuff that ‘cult’ novels are made of. US President Franklin D. Roosevelt named the Presidential hideaway in Maryland after Shangri-La. It was renamed as Camp David later.

The idea that it is an ageless world is very fascinating. However, it is not completely ageless. The High Lama does pass away but before he dies, he tells Conway that ‘we have managed to slow age and we practice everything in moderation here’. I find that a very fascinating concept too. Living life in moderation. This is akin to what the great Buddha told us. And the practices of the lamas at the lamasery seem similar to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and his concept of mindful living.

And before I leave you with this little passage from the novel, let me also tell you that Conway does meet Sieveking, who was an expert on the great Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, and Conway plays a piece, which Sieveking says it cannot be Chopin…

Anyway, I hope you enjoy this little passage from the novel…

It had, of course, crossed his mind, but a certain initial and fantastic unreasonableness about it had been too much for him. Now he perceived that the unreasonableness, however fantastic, was to be swallowed. That flight from Baskul had not been the meaningless exploit of a madman. It had been something planned, prepared, and carried out at the instigation of Shangri-La. The dead pilot was known by name to those who lived there; he had been one of them, in some sense; his death was mourned. Everything pointed to a high directing intelligence bent upon its own purposes; there had been, as it were, a single arch of intentions spanning the inexplicable hours and miles. But what WAS that intention? For what possible reason could four chance passengers in the British government aeroplane be whisked away to these trans-Himalayan solitudes?