The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, despite a truly horrendous cover design (compare to the Weekly World News, the sadly defunct supermarket tabloid responsible for such groundbreaking journalism as “Batboy Lives!”) and titillating title, is surprisingly well written. What David Grann lacks in survival skills he compensates for with literary ability. He also has a journalist’s eye for a story.
In 1925 veteran explorer Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett journeyed into the Brazilian jungle with his son in search of a mythical lost city which he called “Z”. The party was never seen or heard from again. Over the following decades expeditions were mounted to find out what happened. All failed (some disastrously). The disappearance of Fawcett and the possible existence of “Z” had captured the public’s imagination. As is usually the case, a cottage industry grew around the story. Some claimed the explorers went “native” and produced their white/Indian offspring (in reality albinos) as proof. Artifacts and messages from the doomed party were “discovered”. Sightings were reported. Psychics became involved. As recently as 2005 the Guardian newspaper published an article Veil Lifts on Jungle Mystery of the Colonel Who Vanished claiming that:
According to previously hidden private papers, it appears that Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain and, perhaps lured by a native she-god or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive, he planned instead to set up a commune in the jungle, based on a bizarre cult.
Into this circus walked David Grann, a staff writer for the New Yorker. He was given access to journals by the family that shed light on the route Fawcett’s party had taken. Based on the new information Grann decided to mount his own expedition into the Brazilian jungles – following an 80-year-old trail and with no wilderness experience to speak of. Think Survivor meets the History Channel.
It should have been a great story…a lost city, an Indiana Jones-like hero and hostile landscape. Grann was certainly equal to the task. He skillfully controls the narrative – jumping back and forth between Fawcett’s life, the stories of those who attempted to find Fawcett, and his own trek into the jungle. Unfortunately, in the process of reading certain things quickly become apparent.
First – David Grann’s journey was nothing like Fawcett’s (in Grann’s favor he never claims otherwise). Fawcett macheted his way through unexplored jungle until his animals died and his companions were too sick to continue. Grann brought a guide, handheld GPS and a Landrover. He negotiated safe passage through tribal lands prior to entering them. He had set destinations where people were waiting to meet him. I’m not trying to take away from what Grann did… or to imply that he in any way cheated or misrepresented… it just wasn’t that exciting to read about.
Second – After 80 years no one is expecting a “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” moment. Take the jungle out of the equation and Fawcett would now be 142 years old. While the author never finds a pile of bones with a wallet in the pocket and a blowgun dart sticking out of the ribcage, there are numerous scenarios that have long been discussed which all point to the same conclusion: Fawcett and party died in the jungle. It’s a bit anticlimactic. The reality is, Col. Fawcett made 7 expeditions into the jungle and could have died on any one of them. Between the insects, maggots, infectious diseases, piranhas, anaconda, hostile tribes, lack of food and the jungle itself – the real mystery is how Fawcett wasn’t killed long before 1925.
Finally – By the people who care, namely archeologists and anthropologists, the existence of “Z” is no longer in question. Discoveries had been made and books published prior to The Lost City of Z … they just weren’t calling the ruins discovered “Z”. David Grann acknowledges this and points those interested in the direction of further reading on the subject. Which still doesn’t change that fact that the final chapter is disappointing. Sort of like being shipwrecked on a desert island, believing you have found a tropical paradise and discovering Club Med a few beaches over.
Perhaps I would have enjoyed the book more if I’d picked it up without expectations. Portions were interesting. Particularly the present-day research being done by Michael Heckenberger, the archeologist Grann credits with re-discovering the ruins that Fawcett believed to be his lost city. Yet this is only a small part of the narrative. In the end I would have enjoyed the story more as a series of articles. As it stands, The Lost City of Z implies big payoffs that it never manages to deliver.