Book review: ‘The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon,’ by David Grann
July 15, 2016
The puzzles of the past have long been fodder for the imagination, fueling fictitious tales of exploration and adventure, from the writings of Jules Verne to movies featuring unforgettable characters such as Allan Quatermain and, most famously, Indiana Jones. But few mysteries have evoked as much speculation or determined investigation as the fate of renowned explorer Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett.
Author David Grann's runaway best-seller "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon" delves into that deepest of mysteries, the unsolved disappearance of Fawcett. Grann writes a gripping tale, laying out a thrilling account of the famed explorer's countless adventures and hostile encounters with both man and beast and of his ultimate demise at the grips of what he most loved: the mysterious jungle of the Amazon. Fawcett, for his age, was deemed brave beyond measure and seemingly impervious to the inherent perils of the place, yet it still claimed him in the end.
Fawcett's final and tragic 1925 expedition into the darkest interior of the baffling and vast Amazon was not the first for a determined man whose years of highly experienced and well-equipped explorations contributed a great deal to the mapping of South America. Not only was Fawcett greatly enamored of the pure thrill of the challenges put forth by the unique ecological conditions of the Amazonian jungle, but he, like many before him, was convinced of the existence of a forgotten city, an extraordinary civilization that had existed and flourished for generations in a part of the world where daily survival was a challenge.
Real-World El Dorado
Soon to be a major motion picture starring Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson, "The Lost City of Z" examines the possibility of a world beyond the fringes of any known maps, a real-world El Dorado, where gold dripped from the eaves and art and culture flourished. The stories Grann reveals of the hunt for a fabled Amazonian city are fantastical, and Fawcett was just one of many who tried his luck, though he was one of the most persistent.
Conditions were brutal, and death was nearly a certainty. Starvation was a real fate for any group who ventured into the remote interior, for though the Amazon was rich with life, very little of it was edible or accessible. Death and pain threatened from every crevasse and hollow, and the entire canopy teemed with predators ready to jump. Poisonous plants, carnivorous fish and blood-sucking insects terrorized and tormented at each turn.
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Grann writes in rousing detail about his own efforts to follow in Fawcett's long-lost footprints, nearly a century after the explorer's trail had gone cold. Many search parties before his own endeavored to discover the fate of Fawcett and his companions, all of whom seemingly walked to an inevitable fate of certain death, though Grann is quick to clarify that all Fawcett's writings and documents point to a man who felt certain of his charmed luck when it came to the Amazon. Where companions and colleagues had failed and floundered left and right, Fawcett recovered and thrived, never defeated by the horrific conditions that claimed the lives of so many of his fellow explorers.
Dazzling Ride into History
Grann frames Fawcett's fascinating story with the tales of some of those other failed expeditions, including several where hostile indigenous tribes were responsible for the disappearance or capture of men. He also juxtaposes his own attempts at tracing Fawcett's path, marveling at how carefully the explorer attempted to cover his tracks, creating cyphers in his journals and false trails in his writings, in the hopes that no one would claim the prize of the mysterious city's existence before he could.
With so much of the planet's "blank spots" having been filled in and traversed by man and machine, Grann's account of the mysteries and wonders of the Amazon is a stirring reminder that humans do not have ultimate dominion over the powerful forces of time and nature, both of which will persist long after we are gone. "The Lost City of Z" stimulates the imagination and is a dazzling ride into history.