REVIEW: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

REVIEW: The Lost City of Z by David GrannThe Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
Published: Doubleday (2009), Hardcover, 352pg
Genres: Adventure, Biography, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Travel

After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, acclaimed New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve “the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century:” What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett and his quest for the Lost City of Z?

In 1925 Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world’s largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humankind. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions helped inspire Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions around the globe, Fawcett embarked with his twenty-one-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilization–which he dubbed “Z”–existed. Then he and his expedition vanished.

Fawcett’s fate–and the tantalizing clues he left behind about “Z”–became an obsession for hundreds who followed him into the uncharted wilderness. For decades scientists and adventurers have searched for evidence of Fawcett’s party and the lost City of Z. Countless have perished, been captured by tribes, or gone mad. As David Grann delved ever deeper into the mystery surrounding Fawcett’s quest, and the greater mystery of what lies within the Amazon, he found himself, like the generations who preceded him, being irresistibly drawn into the jungle’s “green hell.” His quest for the truth and his stunning discoveries about Fawcett’s fate and “Z” form the heart of this complex, enthralling narrative. (from Amazon)

I immediately noticed that it was one of those books that tended to the more sensationalist side of things. That’s entertaining, but also off-putting because I’m not sure I can trust the information. It was interfering with my enjoyment of the book to keep thinking of it like it was actively tricking me into believing something false, so I tried to put it out of my mind. I tried to think of it more like a fictional book than a non-fictional one (or maybe like a fictional book with non-fictional leanings), and that worked pretty well. It let me be less hostile towards The Lost City of Z, and I actually ended up enjoying it a lot.

Stories of adventurers and explorers always excite me, and this one is particularly exciting. I don’t want to ever wander around the Amazon jungles myself– the bugs and deadly plants and killer animals are just too overwhelming– but I do enjoy reading about other people doing it. With ice and desert landscapes you get the psychological aspects of having to survive in a bald landscape under horrific temperatures, but the jungle is quite psychologically damaging as well. The Lost City of Z mentions quite a few times when the constant attack of gnats, flies, ticks, maggots, ants, termites and other bugs caused explorers to basically go mad, and I can understand why. I hate just even thinking of bugs crawling over me; no way I could survive them actually doing so!

The Lost City of Z is exciting but also pretty gory. A few times I had to put it down because I was so disgusted with details of explorers’ ailments (rotting flesh, maggots living under the skin) I couldn’t even drink coffee without wanting to throw up. Much better were the parts when explorers heroically discovered something that made all their trials worthwhile. I liked too the story of Percy Harrison Fawcett, though he seemed a really brutish fellow, and the people he dragged into his adventures. I felt bad for his kids, who were either neglected and forgotten or one of the people he dragged with him. And I felt bad for his wife, too, who loved her husband but spent much of her time living vicariously through him.

It was really interesting how Mr Grann made a connection between the psyche and the explorer’s need to get out there and discover things. He said something like Fawcett needed to get out of civilization every once in a while otherwise he’d go grim and horrible. I liked the whole idea of the inner-outer connection of exploring: you’re not only trying to discover a mythological, mysterious city but maybe you’re also trying to discover some part of yourself. It’s just very romantic, I guess. Exploration needs a bit of romance, or else it’s just not as fun.

Percy Harrison Fawcett

The author’s own story of his Amazonian adventure was definitely a side story, but it was still good to read. It was nice to see a regular person go mad about something and plunge into a dangerous area in search of it, though Mr Grann doesn’t really talk about any of the dangers he faced (if he did face any dangers). He just seems to always talk about potential dangers, close calls or “they said this might happen but it didn’t” kinds of things. Does that make is story less valid? No way! But it does highlight the differences between explorers of Mr Fawcett’s time and the explorers we have today. Some of our explorers may face dangers from native peoples, but bugs and malaria and other diseases are mostly controllable. So too is the world controllable: we’re not looking to fill in parts of a map anymore, and the only ancient cities we’re trying to find are the material. Our world has shrunk and maybe our dreams have, too.

Kinda depresses me.

Anyway, do I believe that Mr Grann ended up finding the city of Z that Fawcett had been looking for? Dunno. I thought it was truly fascinating that someone had found evidence for a large city in the Amazon, and I’m definitely going to try more info on that. I’m also going to get my hands on a copy of Exploration Fawcett somehow, because it looks possibly even better than The Lost City of Z (maybe my library has it?). But mostly I think Fawcett was looking for a paradise where he could live in peace, separate from the rest of society, and that’s a pretty impossible thing to do in any time period. Maybe in the Amazon you could do it– but only until the bugs got you.

Definitely recommend reading this if you love travel/adventure/exploration stories. Just take it with a grain of salt.

Read: November 22-24, 2009


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