GREAT FIGURES OF THE MISSIONARY WORK – Bengal and the Kingdom of the Dragon (70)

– Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Here is the plot of the novel Lost Horizon, by James Hilton: May 1931.

In British Raj India 80 Europeans are evacuated to Peshawar due to an ongoing revolution. On Chandrapore’s maharajah’s plane traveled Hugo Conway; Mallinson, the young vice consul; Barnard, an American; and a British missionary, Miss Brinklow. The plane is diverted and driven to Tibet. After a forced landing, the pilot dies, not without first advising passengers to seek shelter in the nearby monastery of Shangri-La. They are later rescued by a local monk. The monastery they come across has modern facilities (central heating, Ohio built bathtubs, a large library, a grand piano, a harpsichord) and plenty of food grown in a fertile valley. Despite this, Mallinson wants to leave, though others want to stay in such a pleasant place. There lives in that monastery Lo-Tsen, a young Manchu woman who Mallinson and Conway fall in love with. Conway is given an audience with the main Lama, who tells him that the monastery was built by a Catholic monk from Luxembourg  named Perrault in the early 18th century. Since then, many had found their way to the Shangri-La Valley and have remained there, thus halting their aging process. But if they dared to leave the valley, they would soon grow old quickly and die. In the course of the conversation, Conway realizes that the so-called Lama is now an 250-year-old Perrault, who, at a later hearing, will confess that he is finally about to die and therefore wants to offer to the consul the leadership of the monastery.

Mallinson, meanwhile, plans to leave the valley with porters and Lo-Tsen, but since he can’t make such a dangerous journey alone, he convinces Conway to come and help him. Thus ends the account. By way of epilogue, Rutherford tells us that the last time he saw Conway, he was preparing to return to Shangri-La. Rutherford completes his report by telling the neurologist that while trying to find the English consul, he had come across the doctor who had treated him in Chongqing. The doctor had told him that Conway had been brought in by a Chinese woman who was sick and had died shortly after. “She was the oldest person I had ever seen,” the doctor had said, suggesting that it was Lo-Tsen, aged dramatically after her departure from Shangri-La. The narrator wonders, at the end of the book, whether or not Conway could find his way back to his lost paradise.

In the Horizon Lost plot, soon we realize that the character Perrault is clearly inspired by the figure of Father António de Andrade, or even that of his fellow traveler, lay brother Manuel Marques, as he stayed in Tibet and died there, as it happens with the fictional main Lama of the Shangri-La monastery. Even today I have to understand why Hilton chose to give to his main character the Luxembourgish nationality. Why didn’t he give it the Portuguese nationality, thereby paying tribute to those who inspired his story? Anyway, looking at it positively, at least it didn’t foist on us English or French characters, as usual. There is another sign that indicates that the writings of the Portuguese Jesuits were the inspiration for the Lost Horizon. Given the facilities of the monastery, the newcomers soon deduced that there was a lot of money there. Barnard said, “You know, Conway, this place is not run without much money.” In reply, Mallinson said: “The whole place is a confusing mystery. I would say they have hidden money pots, as did the Jesuits.”

As for the Shangri-La designation, well, this one, as it is known, has served to name hotel chains, spas and restaurants, in various regions of the world, in the Himalayan universe and beyond, claiming such a desirable geographical position.

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