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Book Review: Not Exactly Shangri-la by Martin Moir

Martin Moir is a London based writer. He was associated with the Oriental and India Office Collection of the British Library in London. Not Exactly Shangri-la is his debut novel; he fictionalizes the adventures of one Timothy Curtin, who after apparently completing his doctorate has come to do some research regarding the history of the Himalayan kingdom ‘Kalapur’.  He, being the secretary of the ‘Royal Himalayan Centre’ in London, Curtin organizes a lecture in the presence of the main head of the monastery of Kalapur’s.

Further, he, the abbot unveils about a secret document entitled ‘The Lives of the Lamas’ will soon be made accessible to selected foreign researchers, and before he departs he hands Curtin an official invitation to visit Kalapur. When Curtin takes up his scholarly adventure, Kalapur is tussling with a violent struggle. It is taken that the construction of the kingdom’s recent historical past is a major cause of conflict. Curtin’s research therefore has major political involvements, and he finds himself being repressed to reach a set of prescribed conclusions, particularly with regard to the mysterious death of a senior lama some sixty years earlier.

Moir’s novel, which is clearly inspired in part by James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, is a curious mixture of colonial-style adventure story, pseudo-scholarly travelogue, romance, and modern political allegory. At its best, it is very entertaining. For instance, the question of the existence or non-existence of the yeti is a principal concern for the members of the Royal Himalayan Centre, who are sorely divided over the matter, and Moir’s wry account of their argument is great fun. The narrative also displays a close familiarity with Buddhist Himalayan cultures, and Moir describes the religious environment well. However, although it is told with some panache, this reader found parts of Moir’s story somewhat unconvincing and winced at some of the Orientalist stereotypes that appear in the course of its telling. When Hilton wrote his novel for an English-speaking readership between the wars, the Himalaya could safely be treated as a mythological setting.


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