Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lost Horizon

The last of Owl's China entries. She's got another one written at the height of a bakery  & Georgette Heyer addiction stashed away. Literally, think Owl doped up to the eyeballs on sugar and white flour, and flying high on regency romance with pistols. Um. Yeah. Owl's decided the internet doesn't need to read it. Anyway. Instead, Owl is offering up a slice of Tibet and Paradise--really, Paradise--with some OH, BUT, NO, thrown in for added zing.


How do you feel about going to Shangri-La this weekend? Owl's Swiss-Tibetan friend asked her during a marathon study session.

Owl put down her Chinese textbooks. Owl pinched herself hard. Owl hyperventilated.  But it's paradise. But it's mythical. But how do you travel to a mythical paradise—in the shadow of angel wings? And then her brain stopped working and she just went yes, oh yes, please, yes, yes, yes!

And her friend looked at her sort of funny, and explained slowly and patiently that there are these things called airplanes and Shangri-La is about twenty minutes away by plane.

Owl sank back into her chair and was useless for the entire evening because Shangri-La! Paradise on earth! Owl was going to paradise! For the weekend. Just. Like. That.

This is what happens when you up and quit your job to study Chinese.

[Okay, another part of this reality is Owl has exactly $11.50 in her bank account after purchasing plane tickets because getting to paradise is expensive. But. Paradise! You don't need money in paradise!]

Then Owl realized she didn't actually know much about Shangri-La. She'd heard the term bandied about as a synonym for paradise, there's a super fancy hotel chain where they place fruit baskets and teapots in tea cozies in your room, and one of her high school friends fancied it as a nickname for Owl, only he shortened it to "Shangi."

Hell-bent on doing her research, Owl got a copy of James Hilton's 1933 bestseller Lost Horizon prontisimo. Lost Horizon is about four Westerners who survive a plane crash and find themselves in a fictional Tibetan valley of unsurpassed beauty where the citizens have unlimited wealth and live unbelievably long lives in perfect tranquility. Hilton named the valley Shangri-La.  

Lost Horizon dominated the bestseller charts for years and spawned a legend, a city, and a five star hotel chain all dubbed Shangri-La.

Lost Horizon has two realities. The first is that it's a beautiful novel. Hilton's prose has a liquid grace, his descriptions are piercing. Read, and the snow capped mountains solidify in front of you, the green terraces and lotus ponds of Shangri-La unfold before your feet.  

Perhaps, because Hilton was writing in the aftermath of WWI and in the looming shadow of WWII, Lost Horizon is tinted with a wistfulness for quietude and time. Time enough to sit still, time enough to think, and these leaks off of the pages as soothing as a narcotic.

The second reality is Lost Horizon is an Englishman's fantasy of the Orient. Hilton does a fairly good job with race relations considering that he was writing in 1933. There are no racial slurs, his protagonist is free from bigotry or so Hilton proclaims, but his novel has a Western-orientation. Although the valley is in Tibet, the majority of high ranking citizens in Shangri-La are Westerners and the citizens discuss Mozart and Chopin.

The single non-white female in Lost Horizon is referred to as "The Little Manchu," although, she is far older than the men who love her. She does not speak. She is given no dialog. The reader has no insight into her thoughts. She is lovely and that is all the reader learns about her.

"She stood for him as a symbol of all that was delicate and fragile; her stylized courtesies and the touch of her fingers on the keyboard yielded a completely satisfying intimacy. Sometimes he would address her in a way that might, if she cared, have led to less formal conversation; but her replies never broke through the exquisite privacy of her thoughts, and in a sense he did not wish them to."

She's a symbol, not a person, as are the rest of the Oriental characters in Lost Horizon. Few have speaking lines. Those who do, exist as vehicles to communicate information. They have no feelings, flaws, or identifiable personality traits besides tranquility. This, very subtly, weaves a message into the Western cultural narrative—Orientals are not real people with thoughts and feelings. More troubling, this is done so subtly, so unconsciously, it is easy to skim over as a reader. Owl would wager many people would say she's being oversensitive and should shut up and just enjoy the book. Owl herself wonders.   

Lost Horizon is the stuff of high fantasy, and fantasy can be just as dehumanizing as racism. Hilton offers up the Orient as a panacea for all the ills of the West, rather than taking the Orient seriously as a place inhabited by people who have more in common, rather than less, with their Western counterparts—the fact of being human.

Lost Horizon is all the more dangerous because it's compelling fantasy. Such compelling high fantasy, that Shangri-La hotels are the byword for excellent hospitality in Southeast Asia, cities from China to Nepal have fought over the honor of calling themselves Shangri-La, and, Owl?

Owl emptied her bank account to visit paradise this weekend.


  1. I'm not tempted to read Lost Horizon. But how did Owl find Shangri-La? :D

  2. It is well worth a read, the prose is delicious.

    Shangri-La was paradise. Paradise full of lovely people who tried to rip Owl off and food that gave her really bad gas, but for all of that still paradise. The scenery was lovely in its spareness, mountains and plateaus.