Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
by David Grann
Vintage Books, 2009
Trade Paperback , 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400078455
very highly recommended

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, but he and his expedition vanished. For decades, scientists and adventurers have searched for evidence of Fawcett's party and the lost City of Z. David Grann's quest for the truth and his stunning discoveries about Fawcett's fate and Z form the heart of this complex, enthralling narrative.
My Thoughts:

The Lost City of Z by David Grann is actually two stories. The main story and focus of the book is the life of explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett. Chapters alternate between Fawcett's story and that of the author, David Grann, who, while researching Fawcett's life, decided to follow Fawcett's last known footsteps and entered the Brazilian jungles himself.

Fawcett was among the last of the gentleman explorers who set out to explore and map the jungles of the Amazon. The tales of Fawcett's explorations in the jungles were often horrifying. The expedition that captured the world's attention was the one in 1925. Accompanied only by his son Jack and Raleigh Rimmell, Jack's boyhood friend, they entered the jungle looking for the legendary city of Z. None of them ever returned. After this, the 1925 expedition has been the subject of much speculation and many rescue parties.

The chapters shift between he story of Fawcett's life and his expeditions and Grann's research and preparations to follow Fawcett's last known trail. While Fawcett's story is impressive and fascinating, I also found Grann's story interesting, especially when he starts following Fawcett's trail and it is evident how much the jungle has changed.

In the end The Lost City of Z truly is a tale of obsession - that of Fawcett's determination to find Z (or El Dorado, or a lost civilization) and the obsession of Gran with Fawcett's explorations. While Grann's book has no great, surprising revelations or conclusions, it was interesting.

The Lost City of Z includes photos, maps, a note on the sources, notes, a selected bibliography, and index. All in all, I really quite enjoyed it, although it should be noted that some reviewers have found the focus of the narrative itself and the conclusion lacking in depth.
very highly recommended


I pulled the map from my back pocket. It was wet and crumpled, the lines I had traced to highlight my route now faded. I stared at my markings, hoping that they might lead me out of the Amazon, rather than deeper into it. preface, pg. 3

I told myself that I had come simply to record how generations of scientists and adventurers became fatally obsessed with solving what has often been described as "the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century" - the whereabouts of the lost City of Z. The ancient city, with its network of roads and bridges and temples, was believed to be hidden in the Amazon, the largest jungle in the world. pg. 4

At times I had to remind myself that everything in this story is true: a movie star really was abducted by Indians; there were cannibals, ruins, secret maps, and spies; explorers died from starvation, disease, attacks by wild animals and poisonous arrows; and at stake amid the adventure and death was the very understanding of the Americas before Christopher Columbus came ashore in the New World. pg. 5

He was Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, and his name was known throughout the world.
He was the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose. For nearly two decades, stories of his adventures had captivated the public's imagination: how he had survived in the South American wilderness without contact with the outside world; how he was ambushed by hostile tribesmen, many of whom had never before seen a white man; how he battled piranha, electric eels, jaguars, crocodiles, vampire bats, and anacondas, including one that almost crushed him; and how he emerged with maps of regions from which no previous expedition had returned. He was renowned as the "David Livingstone of the Amazon," and was believed to have such unrivaled powers of endurance that a few colleagues even claimed he was immune to death. pg. 7-8

Fawcett, however, was certain that the Amazon contained a fabulous kingdom, and he was not another soldier of fortune or a crackpot. A man of science, he had spent years gathering evidence to prove his case-digging up artifacts, studying petroglyphs, and interviewing tribes. And after fierce battles with skeptics Fawcett had received funding from the most respected scientific institutions, including the Royal Geographical Society, the American Geographical Society, and the Museum of the American Indian. Newspapers were proclaiming that Fawcett would soon startle the world. The Atlanta Constitution declared, "It is perhaps the most hazardous and certainly the most spectacular adventure of the kind ever undertaken by a reputable scientist with the backing of conservative scientific bodies."
Fawcett had concluded that an ancient, highly cultured people still existed in the Brazilian Amazon and that their civilization was so old and sophisticated it would forever alter the Western view of the Americas. He had christened this lost world the City of Z. pg. 12

As reporters clamored around him, Fawcett explained that only a small expedition would have any chance of survival. It would be able to live off the land, and not pose a threat to hostile Indians. The expedition, he had stated, "will be no pampered exploration party, with an army of bearers, guides and cargo animals. Such top-heavy expeditions get nowhere; they linger on the fringe of civilization and bask in publicity. Where the real wilds start, bearers are not to be had anyway, for fear of the savages. Animals cannot be taken because of lack of pasture and the attack of insects and bats. There are no guides, for no one knows the country. It is a matter of cutting equipment to the absolute minimum, carrying it all oneself, and trusting that one will be able to exist by making friends with the various tribes one meets." He now added, "We will have to suffer every form of exposure.... We will have to achieve a nervous and mental resistance, as well as physical, as men under these conditions are often broken by their minds succumbing before their bodies."
Fawcett had chosen only two people to go with him: his twenty-one-year-old son, Jack, and Jack's best friend, Raleigh Rimell. Although they had never been on an expedition, Fawcett believed that they were ideal for the mission: tough, loyal, and, because they were so close, unlikely, after months of isolation and suffering, "to harass and persecute each other"-or, as was common on such expeditions, to mutiny. pg. 14


Jeanne said...

I have this one on my shelf, like so many others that my husband tells me vaguely I "ought to read." Now I might really do it.

Lori L said...

I really enjoyed The Lost City of Z, Jeanne. I noticed that some other reviewers would have preferred Fawcett's story without the alternating chapters featuring Grann and some had a problem with the conclusion so I'll be waiting to see what you think.

Percy Fawcett said...
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