Saturday, August 22, 2009

Book Review: "The Lost City of Z"

In the waning days of summer, I'm plowing through more of my summer reading, this time moving from the fun fiction to some very interesting non-fiction.

In a nice juxtaposition of my passion for history and my enjoyment of travel writing, I plowed through the outstanding "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon" by David Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker. In it, Grann explores the disappearance of Col. Percy Fawcett, "the last of the individualist explorers", his son, and his son's best friend as they entered the Amazon rain forest in search of the fabled city of El Dorado, or "Z" as Fawcett named it.

A parallel story of past and present exploration, "The Lost City of Z" follows both Fawcett's history and the events leading up to his final expedition along with Grann's own expedition into the Amazon in search of the truth of Fawcett's disappearance though the majority of the is given over to Fawcett, his obsession with finding the legendary lost city, and the realities of exploring the vastness of the Amazon rainforest that keep you riveted.

Before the age of movie stars, it was the British explorers who sought to expand out view of the world -- men like Richard Francis Burton, the first European to reach the headwaters of the Nile; Ernest Shackleton of the Endurance expedition; Robert Falcon Scott who died after reaching the South Pole Antarctic as part of the Terra Nova expedition; Henry Livingstone (he of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume"), and Colonel Percy Fawcett -- who were the rock stars of their day.

With the South Pole reached and Africa largely opened to the western world, Fawcett (an inspiration for both Professor Challenger in Conan Doyle's "The Lost World" and Indiana Jones) focused on the Amazon, one of the last great unexplored stretches on modern maps. In many cases, those entering the jungle did so to find what was there, to seek the headwaters of the great rivers, to find a way through it, or take advantage of its resources. However, it was the tales of lost cities and civilizations, of vanished treasures, of natives who coated themselves in gold dust because it was so plentiful, that drove so many of those who sought fame in the jungle and, in many cases, died there.

Fawcett was foremost among these Amazon explorers, a legend in his own right for his ability to survive where so many others fell as well as for his ability to coexist with Indians that otherwise were hostile to those entering their forest. Grann leads us through his repeated expeditions as he brought to light much that was previously unknown to western science -- giant anacondas, the double-nosed Andean tiger hounds, Indian tribes with little if any prior contact with westerners -- and mapped the previously impassable border of Brazil and Bolivia.

It is also clear from Grann's research and personal experience that the Amazon was and still is, in its own way, just as inhospitable a place for those not accustomed to it. The squeamish might want beware of those sections in which Grann details the various gruesome ways members of various expeditions became disease-infested (e.g., five simple words: "maggots growing in his elbows"), crippled or killed.

But it is Fawcett's growing fascination with the legendary lost city he designated as "Z", his final expedition in search of it, and the decades of fruitless searches, rumors, and deaths in efforts to find Fawcett and his companions, that are the engine for Grann's story. Grann's research into Fawcett's thinking, including access to letters and other materials that had not previously been made available by Fawcett's family, spur Grann himself to enter the Amazon rainforest in search of the truth of Fawcett's disappearance as well as a possible resolution to the legend of Z.

The result is the rediscovery of a tale that gripped the western world for decades before sliding into obscurity as well as an examination of how the Amazon of Fawcett's day is both changing and unchanged in a world of bulldozers and ripstop nylon tents. At times long-winded with details (Grann is up front about how this research became an obsession for him and it shows at times in the writing and not in a good way), it's not a book you want to put down once you begin.

While we know from the start that Fawcett was never found, the knowledge of that result doesn't detract from the tale of how Fawcett reached that point where he would risk his life at age 58, along with that of his eldest son, Jack, and Jack's best friend, in pursuit of his obsessive desire to find Z. Grann's own journey, abetted by GPS, trucks, roads, and motorboats, seems small in comparison but his tale of Fawcett's explorations as well as his own realizations about both the possible fate of Fawcett as well as the existence of Z make the journey worthwhile.

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