Thursday, September 29, 2016

Going back to Shangri-La

When I was in high school, I probably read Lost Horizon by James Hilton at least once a year. Even at the time, I couldn't tell you why. There was just something very relaxing and calming about the book.

Lost Horizon didn't create the idea of the mystical monastery in Tibet. Apparently the idea had been around for literally centuries. However, Hilton definitely helped popularize and codify the idea. People who have never heard of the book know what Shangri-La is.

My memories of it as a teenager was that Hilton's Shangri-La was a more low-key, realistic mystic monastery. Basically, what made it special was that everyone got along and some people got to live to a really old age. Which, when you think about it, it's still pretty fantastical. However, thanks to comic books and movies, I was used to the idea that people got taught mystical martial arts and magical powers at these monasteries. Compared to that, Shangri-La seemed pretty realistic.

Re-reading the book after twenty years made me a little bit more critical of the book. For one thing, the high lama talks about developing telepathy, which seems pretty fantastic to me.

I also couldn't help but notice how European this perfect Tibetan Valley is. The guy in charge is European. It has all kinds of modern, western amenities. The musical focus, particularly strong in Mozart and Chopin, is western. And, it turns out that Europeans are the ones who responds best to this extended life treatment.

It wasn't enough to bother me. Despite all that, the book doesn't come across as being particular racist or imperialist. Still, I am surprised that I missed it when I was younger.

The last thing that struck me on this rereading was how Hilton managed to create a chain of unreliable narrators. The primary narrator learns Conway's story from a friend who claims to have met Conway after the world declared him dead and who claims to be telling Conway's story without any embellishment. On top of that, even with in Conway's own narrative, there is no actual proof ever given that any of this extended life or telepathy business is real.

I really like that. Hilton does it in such a smooth way that I didn't realize how unreliable the narrative was until the very end. When one of the characters points it out! What this really does is help bring back the realism that I remembered from when I was a teenager.

Earlier this year, I reread Hilton's other classic, Goodbye Mister Chips. I found that I got a lot more out of it reading it as an adult. Lost Horizon didn't have as strong an effect. But both books really impressed me with Hilton's craft as a writer. His ability to undersell themes and situations to make them more powerful is amazing.

Lost Horizon might not be as deep and meaningful as I thought it was a couple of decades ago. At the same time, I have a deeper appreciation for the craft and skill that went into writing it. It's a best seller and classic for good reason.


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