I had a long winter and spring ahead of me before I could try to get over the mountains to India, and the monastery was not so large a place to roam. I soon used up its spaces.
I’d get up in the morning—after sleeping as late as possible and then lying in bed staring up and out at the blue‑black sky beyond my window—and wander down to the kitchen to fix myself some tea. (In those early days I sorely missed my coffee.) Then I’d make my way down to Mr. Barnard’s greenhouse, or his workshop, or I’d pace one of the little patios that open off the main buildings. Sooner or later Mr. Barnard and I would come together and we’d have a lunch, usually some thick slices of bread and butter, or perhaps a few pieces of fruit. And while we ate, and later while we sat in the library rooms or went outside for a smoke, he and I would talk.
At first he answered my questions apparently without reserve, but as I learned enough to make my questions more focused, more pointed, I began to notice that on certain topics he wasn’t giving me straight answers.
If he wasn’t a monk, why did he live in a monastery? He had come to like it.
But what had attracted him to it in the first place? Oh, it had sounded interesting. (“inter‑estin’”)
Who had first told him about it? Where had he heard of it? How had he gotten here? When had he gotten here? The more pointed the question, the hazier the answer.
He’d said about 50 monks lived here. Did the numbers stay more or less constant over the years? More or less.
What was the smallest number he remembered? The largest? About the same.
Did most of the monks live to a ripe old age? They did all right.
How many of the monks were Westerners? Quite a few.
Was everybody here Catholic? Was he a Catholic? Did the monks, at least, have to be Catholic? No, no, no.
Well, surely they were all Christian? No again.
Well (meant humorously) at least they all believed in God? Long pause. “I don’t know that belief has got a whole lot to do with it.”
Okay, forget all that. How did the monks spend their time? How did he spend his time? A quizzical look: “You’re looking at it.”
“But we aren’t doing anything in particular!”
“I’ve known worse ways to pass the time.”
Of course I didn’t badger him with questions one after another, nor did he always meet me with evasions. We had plenty to talk about, and there were always chores to be done: wood to be carried, fires to be laid, pots to scrub, floors to sweep. Fortunately for my peace of mind (and due at least partly to a farm background), I didn’t regard chores as beneath me: I was happy to feel that I could pay my way, at least in part.
Nor did I spend all my time with Mr. Barnard, even before I began to meet the others. The second night, he introduced me to the library, and I spent many a dark winter evening reading by the light of lamps burning some kind of vegetable oil.
At first I browsed, for the library was a time‑and‑space capsule ranging extensively among languages, cultures and subjects. Oddly, although some of the books were very old, none was very new. I never came across one printed after 1937. There were extensive files, too, of English newspapers and magazines—but none after March, 1937. It reminded me (incongruously, I thought) of Winston Churchill’s phrase. An Iron Curtain had fallen here, 25 years earlier. Why? How?
I asked Mr. Barnard, and was not surprised that he put me off.
I don’t want to give the impression that Mr. Barnard and I spent those long days and evenings with no one else around. Before many days had passed, I had been introduced to the other monks, and had begun routinely to join them at their common meal in the evening. Slowly — or rather, leisurely, for here no one hurries — the various monks revealed themselves to me, and each drew out new aspects of myself; often enough, aspects of my life and thought that I myself had never been aware of. Yet these aspects emerged spontaneously and as if by chance. This alone should have made me suspicious, but in those days I still believed in chance. Also, I underestimated my importance to them. It’s easy enough, now, to see what they were up to:
1) Dividing my attention among many individuals helped relieve the pressure on Mr Barnard.
2) Calling forth various unsuspected facets of my being helped prepare me to begin work on myself.
3) The presence of a new personality after so long a voyage without new shipmates was a lure irresistible even to the most reclusive.
But in 1962 I knew nothing of this. I had enough to do to deal with the impressions I was receiving.
The first time I joined in the evening common meal, only a few days after I arrived, I was struck by the sight of them all. Five dozen robes: saffron, lemon, red, orange, various blues and violets. An entire spectrum of color suddenly filling the refectory. They did not shout, but neither did they whisper. The sound of their voices was another novelty.
Disproportionately — two‑thirds, perhaps — they were Westerners: whites. Why so many, in so isolated a corner of Asia? Disproportionately, too, the men (and the sprinkling of women) were apparently of middle age. None of the Westerners was so young as I (though three of those I took to be Tibetans were) and only four looked extremely old. Nearly all the others looked to be somewhere between their 40s and 70s. Why should that be?
Mr. Barnard very sensibly did not try to make specific introductions: He announced, briefly, that he supposed that everyone there had heard by now that the lamasery had been favored with a new guest, and he was sure they were all as pleased as he was to have a new face and new mannerisms to get accustomed to, and someone new to hear everyone’s old tired stories. Conceivably, he said, Mr. George Chiari had brought some new jokes, although that might be asking too much. Anyhow, he knew that everybody would get to meet me in due time, and he hoped I knew I was welcome to stay for as long as I liked.
He told me much later it was a standard Rotary Club effort; it got me the expected welcoming applause, and that was the last time anybody treated me as a newcomer. From that evening, I was treated, apparently, the same as everyone else. (Apparently. But there were still questions I couldn’t get answered.)
Meanwhile I had taken the opportunity to look at the room more thoroughly than I had during the tour. The tables and benches were of a finely polished hard, dark wood. The bowls and spoons stacked at one end of the table were of polished wood, as well. The floor and walls were of stone: large wooden beams supported the ceiling 12 or 13 feet above. Along the north and east and west walls, huge exquisite tapestries were hung at intervals. The south wall was given over to windows and draperies. The net effect was one of airy cheerfulness balanced by easy dignity. It seemed — and undoubtedly had been — designed to provide a relaxed, informal atmosphere conducive to digestion.
Mr. Barnard passed me a bowl. “Eat up,” he said. “Tsampa again.”
I started in on it. “How in the world did all these Europeans get here, Mr. Barnard?”
“One way and another. By accident, most of them.”
Servants (that is, I took them to be servants) placed trays of small rolls on the table, and I took one. It was even better than the bread: hard, chewy, with much whole grain embedded in it. “This is delicious!” I said.
A Chinese monk sitting diagonally across from me met my eye. Speaking slowly and courteously, in flawlessly accented English, he said, “Our bread pleases you?”
“The best I’ve ever tasted.”
I hedged. “That’s still new to me.”
The monk laughed, and spoke in rapid‑fire Chinese — Tibetan? — to those near him. They laughed no less heartily, glancing at me good‑naturedly.
“It’s all in getting used to it, I’m sure,” I said quickly. “I have no doubt it is excellent.” By a happy thought, I added, “I know that anyone would enjoy any meal served with such hospitality and kindness to a stranger.”
The compliment pleased him. “It is always a privilege to serve a gracious guest. I trust that you will enjoy your stay.”
“Thank you,” I said—and found that I couldn’t think of anything else to say. The Chinese monk turned to others and entered into an animated conversation in some other language, thus politely relieving me for the rest of the meal of the burden of exchanging pleasantries.
For the reasons I’ve already cited, before I came to know them as individuals, the monks had me thoroughly puzzled. Fortunately, that phase of my stay here lasted only a few days. Viewed in the monastery’s time‑scale, its secrets were unveiled nearly at once. And this is how it was done: Mr. Barnard invited me to tea with Edith Stockbridge Bolton.
As I earlier refrained from painting landscapes of the scenery I passed over on my way here, so I intend to refrain from painting portraits of my fellow voyagers. But for her, as for Mr. Barnard, I must make an exception. Together (working separately) they got me through my first months and made possible much that otherwise might have been long delayed, or entirely forestalled.
Edith Stockbridge Bolton—I discovered as I sat across from her at a small table in an alcove of one of the main music rooms, having tea and cakes in thoroughly English fashion in the thoroughly un‑English presence of Mr. Barnard—had piercingly blue eyes, a milk‑white complexion, an air of unshakable, serene self‑possession and a remarkably direct manner. She looked to be in her 40s, or perhaps in her extremely well‑preserved and youthful early 50s. She was neither fat nor gaunt, and even the corners of her eyes were unlined.
“I should prefer that you call me Sunnie, as everyone else does,” she said, putting an elegant teacup onto its saucer. “Then I shall feel free to call you George, rather than Mr. Chiari, without you thinking me patronizing. This community is too small for formality among friends, don’t you agree, Henry?”
Mr. Barnard broke off a bit of cake and popped it into his mouth. “Yep,” he said, nodding, “nothing’s deader’n formality.”
Sunnie was looking at me, but her air of affectionate amusement was directed at Mr. Barnard. “Henry really is a dreadful tease,” she said, “as you will no doubt discover.” (It was fascinating: Mr. Barnard actually looked a bit sheepish, like a very young man who had been caught in a faux pas by a maiden aunt.) “However, he does possess redeeming qualities, among them energy and intelligence. Also, little though you might think it, sensitivity. Impassioned denial, Henry?”
Mr. Barnard only shook his head, smiling. “We call her Sunnie because that’s her disposition, George.” He regarded her with positive fondness. “Never a harsh word for a soul on earth.”
“Oh, precisely,” she said with a dry chuckle. “That is Henry’s way of warning you that I am not famous for making charitable judgments. Not the least of my shortcomings, I am afraid, is a tendency to criticize.”
Mr. Barnard shook his head again, vigorously. “Sunnie, I keep telling you, it ain’t a fault, and that ain’t it anyway. You say what you see. Is it your fault you see what’s there to be seen? And George, she really does have a sunny disposition. She’s the most cheerful person here.”
“Henry, you are being especially charming today, for some reason, and you know I’m always delighted with your company, but would you mind terribly if I monopolized your young friend just this once? I’m far too old to compete for his attention.”
Mr. Barnard stood up, smiling at the maiden aunt. “Your wish, my command, my dear. Now George, you remember, this is one special lady.”
“Mr. Barnard, I can see that much already.”
He nodded, a little more seriously than I expected. “Well, all right, then, as long as you got that straight. Sunnie, d’you want me to get ’em to send up some more tea stuff?”
She looked at my empty plate and the two cakes that remained. “Thanks very much, Henry, that’s a lovely idea. Wouldn’t it be heavenly to be in one’s twenties again and be able to eat whatever one wanted and never gain an ounce?”
He laughed. “I wouldn’t know. When I was in my twenties I didn’t always eat real regular. By the time I got where I could afford to, everything I ate went right to fat. But you’re right, it don’t look like George has got that problem.”
And then he left, and Sunnie and I were alone in the music room on a November afternoon in 1962, with sunlight streaming in through the west‑facing windows. She asked, “Have you thought how you might use your time here, George?”
I knew, not knowing how I knew, that it wasn’t a casual question; yet it didn’t seem to have much point. I shrugged. “Haven’t given it much thought. There’s a lot of books to read, it looks like. And if this place is much like my father’s farm, I imagine there’s always more to do than time to do it in. I told Mr. Barnard, if anybody’d like some help with any special projects, I’m available.”
“That’s most thoughtful, George. I know he appreciates the offer. There is rather a lot to do to keep up a place, isn’t there? The natives down below are most helpful, but of course one always wishes to do more.” She sipped her tea, drew out the pause. “However, is there nothing you very much wish to do?”
I told her no, that I didn’t see what she was driving at.
She motioned toward the little tea‑cakes, encouraging me to finish them. “Has your life been so blessed with leisure, then? I am aware that the world has changed radically since I left it so many years ago, but I rather supposed that it had become more hurried, rather than less. A young officer in my day would have had has days and nights adequately filled, as I recall.”
I admitted that my life had speeded up when I left the farm. For four years I’d juggled social life and classes while working my way through college. And the Air Force hadn’t left me a lot of free time either, between flight school and the specialized schools they send you to, and then Pakistan. “But I can’t say I feel harried, particularly. Just busy.”
“Ah, then p’raps your problem will lie in finding what to do when you cease to be so busy. You’ve four months, safely, till Spring. You might find it difficult to fill all that time with chores. Moreover, to do nothing but chores might be to waste an opportunity, don’t you think?”
I said again that I hadn’t thought about it.
She smiled at me, an enigmatic smile not without irony. “By the time you reach my age, you will have thought about it a great deal. Only the young think life is long. The older one is, the clearer life’s brevity becomes. Cruel brevity, George, for those who have wasted the time they were given.” She said she supposed that people my age didn’t much read Wordsworth. Did I know his lines about the world being too much with us? I didn’t. She recited them:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up‑gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.
She gave me an ironic smile. “George. Are you perchance one of the pagans suckled in a creed outworn?”
I didn’t get it.
Great God! I’d rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.
“You do take the point?” She waited for me to frame a response.
“I guess it was pretty much the same in Wordsworth’s day as it is now,” I said. “It’s easy to get so caught up in everyday things that you forget to look around you.” I miss my poet, Marianne had said.
“Here we have been given the gift of time. For the next few months you will have few responsibilities and comparatively rich resources. It is an opportunity to be used.”
I began to smell a fish. “Sunnie, do you have something in particular in mind for me?”
What she had in mind, it turned out, was a little book called Lost Horizon, by James Hilton. I asked if it was the same Hilton who had written Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The same.
“Great book,” I said. “Everybody reads it.”
“Do they? How very interesting. Henry showed it me once: We have it as it first appeared, in one of our magazines, I cannot recall which at the moment. But do people not read Lost Horizon?
“The name is familiar, but I don’t think I ever read it.”
She smiled dryly. “Quite apparently.”
“Why? What’s so funny?”
“Your surroundings here were quite famous once. This is the lamasery at Shangri‑la that Mr. Hilton wrote about.”
Whatever reaction Sunnie expected, she didn’t get it. My only reaction was puzzlement.
There had been a song in the 50s about Shangri‑la, and of course that’s what President Franklin Roosevelt had named his mountain retreat in Maryland, the one President Eisenhower renamed Camp David. And I remembered reading somewhere that in 1942, when reporters asked where Jimmy Doolittle’s bombers had taken off from, before bombing Tokyo, Roosevelt had said Shangri‑la. But I’d never known that the name was connected with a specific place: I’d thought it was just another name for paradise, like Valhalla or the Garden of Eden.
“`Sic transit gloria mundi,’” Sunnie said, sighing. “I suppose one shouldn’t expect that the story would remain in vogue forever. Yet one cannot but hope that there are those who read it still. Such a lovely book.”
Sunnie just happened to have the book with her. Such a coincidence! After our tea, I took the hint—and the volume—and retired to the library. I spent the rest of the afternoon there, lighting a lamp when afternoon shadows became too deep. I forced myself to go to the common meal, looking around me in wonderment, torn between profound inability to believe and dawning acceptance. If I spoke to anyone, I cannot recall it: I doubt I would have been able to speak sense. Sunnie and Mr. Barnard were there: I chose not to sit near them.
When the meal was finished, I withdrew to my room, lit my lamp, lay down on my bed, and went back to the story. As evening’s chill arrived and strengthened, I pulled blankets over me and kept on reading. Often I rushed through particular passages, in my hurry to find out what ultimately happened. Every time I did that, I had to go back, re‑read, pick up what I’d missed. I still hadn’t learned to take my father’s advice to make haste slowly. I made haste through the entire book, re‑reading certain passages. It was long after midnight before I reached out and put the book on the floor, blew out the lamp, pulled the blankets around me more tightly, and allowed myself to drop off to sleep, deeply stirred.
The book—an attractive book bound in dark blue, printed in New York in 1933—told of four Westerners who, in May of 1931, were passengers in an aircraft that was hijacked while on a flight from the town of Baskul, British India, to Peshawar, which was then also a part of British India. They had fled anti‑foreign violence in Baskul, expecting to find refuge in Peshawar. Instead, they wound up in northwestern Tibet, a corner of the world even more remote then than now.
The first of the four was Miss Roberta Brinklow, a missionary “of the Eastern Mission,” Hilton said, assuming here, as elsewhere, the reader’s familiarity with many minor details that have long since passed from the face of the earth. Or maybe the Eastern Mission still exists. Anyway, she was perhaps in her 40s, unflatteringly described as a “small, rather leathery woman,” rather brisk and definite, “neither young nor pretty,” and deeply, if conventionally religious. Brave enough. Stoic, even. Not much of a sense of humor, as perhaps is only to be expected in a missionary. (But then, Sunnie, who was a missionary’s wife, has humor enough. Perhaps the difference is that in Miss Brinklow as portrayed there was something of the fanatic. Sunnie embodies balance.)
The other three were men:
“Hugh Conway, H.M. Consul,” a veteran of World War I, which they called the Great War, or simply “the war.” Graduate of Oxford, briefly a teacher there, 37 in 1931, with 10 years’ experience in the Consular service. An extraordinary man, as duly appeared.
“Captain Charles Mallinson, H.M. Vice‑Consul,” then in his mid‑twenties, “pink cheeked, intelligent without being intellectual, beset with public school limitations, but also with their excellences.” Apparently excitable, nervous, irritable, and unstable as water: now hero‑worshipping Conway (as much for Conway’s public‑school athletic exploits, I suspect, as for his wartime valor or his more immediately useful virtues), now scorning him for his “slack” attitude. Mallinson—it did not escape me—was engaged to a girl in England at the time when his future was taken out of his hands.
Finally, “Henry D. Barnard, an American,” described as “a large, fleshy man, with a hard‑bitten face in which good‑humored wrinkles were not quite offset by pessimistic pouches,” who, it eventually turned out, was a man on the run, a financier called “the world’s hugest swindler,” who had run off with a considerable sum of other people’s money just before he could be arrested. He had fled from country to country, finally leaving a revolt‑torn town in an airplane that wound up going to Tibet. (“You don’t know it, but you’re taking to somebody that was famous in his day.”)
Lost Horizon‘s first few pages told how the four passengers gradually realized that they were being hijacked from British India to an unknown destination. I didn’t have to guess where the hijacked airplane was going.
I skipped rapidly through the chapters describing their arrival and their questioning of the Chinese monk Chang. But Chapter Five I read in cold concentration, for there more of Mr. Barnard was described, and (except that “my” Mr. Barnard didn’t call Chinese “Chinks”) the literary figure seemed to match the man in the flesh. This had interesting implications, for—although Mr. Barnard’s age was never clearly stated—I got the impression that he was older than Conway, and Conway (paging back to the first chapter) was 37 in 1931. So Mr. Barnard would have to be nearly 80 now if he was near 50 then. But he looked 30 years younger than that. I deferred judgment and read on.
I knew enough to recognize the atmosphere of the inter‑war years. The movers and shakers of the 1930s were the men who had grown to maturity in a world that 1914 had destroyed. Their experiences had contradicted the dogma of inevitable progress that had shaped their youth. These were men—particularly the Europeans among them—who had watched (and were watching still) as their world grew continually less stable, less comfortable, less hopeful. Europe had entered economic hard times before the United States, but by May, 1931, America’s stock market crash (the crash that had brought Mr. Barnard to flee the wreckage of his financial empire) was already a year and a half in the past, and the Great Depression was well underway.
The stranded travellers soon enough found satisfactions in that cloistered life. Three of them, anyway.
Miss Brinklow concluded that God had brought her here to convert the natives who lived in the valley below. She promptly began to study Tibetan, to prepare herself for the task.
Mr. Barnard didn’t put it in terms of divine providence, but he thought himself awfully lucky not to be in jail in Peshawar. Besides, he soon learned that the lamasery was at one end of a carefully concealed supply route stretching hundreds of miles through China to the outside world, along which caravans travelled, bearing books and other samples of the fine and useful arts. He smelled money, and found the source in the gold vein running through the valley, “as rich as the Rand, and ten times easier to get at.” He began to think of working the mine more scientifically, with an eye toward a warmer welcome home from the same (gold‑hungry) authorities who were at that moment thinking of him only in terms of imprisonment.
As for Conway—
He didn’t know why he had been brought here, but here—after an exile’s lifetime of pointless danger, random motion, and disagreeable convention—he found peace. Nevertheless he threw it away, that peace. Mallinson was the trigger.
Mallinson, unlike the others, could find no consolation whatever at Shangri‑la. Unlike Miss Brinklow, he didn’t believe in providence. He wasn’t on the run from the law. And he hadn’t lived long enough to feel his life a burden. All he could think about was what he had lost in leaving the world: his home, his career, his family, his fiancee. The mountain walls around him seemed a cage. (Certainly I could understand that.) When he learned that a caravan of porters had arrived at their semi‑annual rendezvous, a day’s journey from the monastery, he persuaded Conway to go with him, without even saying good‑bye to Miss Brinklow and Mr. Barnard. But their long return trip ended in disaster, with Mallinson dead and Conway nearly so. Conway was recovering, in a remote hospital in China, when a friend of his, and of novelist Hilton’s, encountered him (“by chance”) and started to return him to “civilization.” But Conway had realized, by then, his error in leaving. At the first opportunity, he slipped away to attempt the long journey back to the place where he had found peace. The book ended with the narrator wondering if Conway ever made it home.
I had been introduced to a monk named Conway. Even as I lay in my bed, reading by the flickering lamplight, I knew that he was the same person. He’d made it back.
But why — if he felt the way he did — had he left in the first place? He’d been told, by the high lama himself, of the monastery’s startling, world‑changing secrets. How then, I wondered (watching the shadows flickering on my ceiling) could he have left, knowing what he knew, feeling as he felt?
For I knew that his reason, as given by Hilton, couldn’t be true.
I came out of sleep in the early morning light (because I’d forgotten to draw the curtain the night before) and lay, half‑awake, reluctant to move. Our rooms are always cold in the mornings; we cannot afford to burn enough wood to heat all the buildings and certainly can’t afford to do so at night. Our central heating is reserved for the rooms of the old and the ill, and for a few common rooms. I tell myself (and it is true enough) that we are no worse off than Thomas Jefferson’s generation, and they got along just fine. But the thought doesn’t make it much easier to get up in the morning. Particularly if you have other reasons to hesitate to start the day.
I wanted answers, and I knew I could get them, and I thought I could believe the answers I’d get. But a part of me didn’t want answers. Part of me suspected that the answers I’d get might lead me farther in a direction that I (or part of me, anyway) might not want to go.