It starts – like all proper novels a la Joseph Conrad – with Englishmen chatting and reminiscing over after-dinner cigars and brandy at their club. And thus does it end, in Imperial India no less. This the British Empire at it’s most decadent peak.
The conversation soon turns to an old Uni pal – Conway – who has disappeared in India under mysterious circumstances. Thus the tale unfolds. It’s the late ’30s, and Hilton is both agonised over the human disaster of WWI, and broodingly prescient about the bigger disaster to come. Lost Horizon is a utopian fantasy bordering on escapism.
Look, it’s not especially well written. The characters are stock, the dialogue clumsy and repetitive, and the plot, thin and somewhat confused, like Hilton could never quite make up his mind on how he wanted to end it.
Nonetheless, without this book there would be no Indiana Jones, no Tintin in Tibet, and about 90% of our fascination with Tibet/Nepal/Bhutan. Not to mention the phrase “Shangri-La”, perhaps most excellently used by FDR when obfuscating about the source of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.
I’m given to understand that for quite some time, Lost Horizon was the sort of book you were made to read in high school, and so it’s been far more widely encountered then you might expect. Here’s what I like about the book. There are the obvious cribbing from Joseph Conrad and Rudyard Kipling; an unmistakeable air of British Empire about the whole book that I find quite enjoyable. And despite the absurdity, Hilton does make a good point, which he drives home. It’s an escape from our frantic “western” lifestyle which is made to look fairly absurd.
It’s escapist; it’s about a refugee from capitalism (there is no other way to describe it) finding a ultimate harbour and escape from this society spinning wildly out of control. It’s a pressure valve.
It hasn’t aged well. There are no great insights. But it’s an interesting book. And every fifty pages or so, Hilton’s mountain rhetoric soars to great heights (pun intended).
You probably don’t have to read it.