Review of the book “Lost Horizons” by James Hilton.
By Ander Terrones Arellano.
“Lost Horizons” by James Hilton, famous for his mysterious Shangri-La Buddhist monastery, was published in 1933. The British author managed to transcend and become part of popular culture thanks to it; In fact, on many occasions Tibetan Buddhism is imagined in the West as Hilton did for this novel, which is probably the most famous work dealing with that culture. Its cultural impact has been great and even today it remains the reference work of fiction on Buddhism in this part of the world. Among other adaptations or inspired works, “Lost Horizons” has been made into a film twice.
The story begins with a plane crash in the Himalayas. The protagonists manage to reach the city of Shangri-La, a utopian place that holds more questions than answers from the first moment. The protagonist, Hugh Conway, will integrate without problems into that society and thanks to this he will begin to understand what happens there. Meanwhile, his three companions will go through different phases and will accept their forced stay in the Lamaist monastery in a different way.
Hilton’s work is deeply mystical, creating an exotic East, as different as possible from what is known in Europe, in order to captivate Western readers. Therefore, the few oriental characters who have any importance are described in a way that the reader can identify with the perplexity of the Westerners. That vision of the mystical and of the distant and lost in the Himalayas has attracted many people to that religion and that culture. Shangri-La, despite being a name and a place that emerged from the mind of James Hilton, with various inspirations, of course, became the representative of what is magical and perfect on Earth for the West.
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I believe that the success of this story has a lot to do with the adventure that is such a different place and that inflames the desire to discover societies different from our own. Furthermore, the other, the oriental, is here someone magical, outside our conception of what is human.
Although the ending seemed a bit rushed and strange to me, the originality of the proposal cannot be denied, as well as the fascination felt by the society of its time and those that followed. However, especially given the great fame of Shangri-La, I was expecting a more detailed description of that utopian society, which we barely glimpsed through some conversations. The novel focuses especially on the adaptation of Westerners to that remote place in the East, and in this we can easily see ourselves represented. Even so, I consider that a more detailed representation on paper of that utopia would be needed to be more complete.
In conclusion, “Lost Horizons” knew how to connect with an audience eager for stories from an East that was as magical, different and mysterious as possible. Despite this, the scant description of the functioning of the temple and the people who live there works against the work when reading it. Of course, James Hilton will always be one of the creators of the vision of Buddhism in the West, a religion that everyone knows but about which we only have some basic notions, largely because of Shangri-La.