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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Lost Horizon

"Cigars had burned low, and we were beginning to sample the disillusionment that usually afflicts old school friends who have met again as men and found themselves with less in common than they had believed they had."

So begins Lost Horizon, one of my favourite books. The origin of the novel is explained in a prologue and epilogue, whose narrator is a neurologist.

This neurologist and a novelist friend, Rutherford, are given dinner at Tempelhof, Berlin, by their old school-friend Wyland, a secretary at the British embassy. A chance remark by a passing airman brings up the topic of Hugh Conway, a British consul in Afghanistan, who disappeared under odd circumstances. Later in the evening, Rutherford reveals to the narrator that, after the disappearance, he discovered Conway in a French mission hospital in Chung-Kiang (probably Chongqing), China, suffering from amnesia. Conway recovered his memory and told Rutherford his story, then slipped away again.

Rutherford wrote down Conway's story; he gives the manuscript to the neurologist, and that manuscript becomes the heart of the novel.

The book, published in 1933, caught the notice of the public only after Hilton's Goodbye, Mr. Chips was published in 1934. Lost Horizon subsequently became a huge success and in 1939 was published in paperback form, as Pocket Book #1. Because of its number-one position in what became a very long list of pocket editions, Lost Horizon is often cited as the first American paperback book, which is not correct. The first mass-market, pocket-sized, paperback book printed in America was an edition of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth.

The Shangri-La Hotels, based in Singapore but extending to Australia, Malaysia and other Asian countries, are also named and to some extent themed after the lamasery of the book. Some of the hotels provide guests with a complimentary copy of the book, a practice stretching back to the chain's first hotel in Singapore in the 1970s.

I obtained my first copy of the book when I stayed at the Shangri-La on Singapore's Orchard Road in January 1983. I have re-read the book several times since then and also watched the 1937-movie.