The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann was pretty much everything that the Brazil history wasn’t: interesting, mysterious, and engaging. It’s a nonfiction, so it’s true, but it reads like a suspense novel. Better yet, it’s about the Amazon Rain Forest, which is a place I’ve wanted to visit ever since I was yay high. I still want to visit…but preferably on an air-conditioned, pest-resistant boat.
Colonel Percy Fawcett became a professional explorer—if you can credit such a thing existing—after graduating from the Royal Geographic Society’s exploration course. His first brush with the Amazon was as a surveyor to settle border questions between South American countries. He finds this world fascinating and persists, going back time and again first as a surveyor and later just to map the region.
Before you think that yes, this seems like the job for you, know that death stalks the jungle. For all the lush growth, many who go in die from starvation, never to come out. Those who do are generally gaunt. If lack of food and clean water doesn’t get you, then the pests do. They bite and burrow, carrying with them deadly diseases, infections, and other horrors. The obvious horrors—venomous snakes and big cats—aren’t the biggest problem in the jungle. No, the mosquitoes and the native take that distinction (though to be fair, many of the natives were friendly, but all you need is one cannibalistic tribe).
During his explorations, Colonel Fawcett found pieces of very fine pottery and other artifacts that suggested they were left by a civilization more advanced than the ones that lived there at the present. This, paired with stories from the Spanish conquistadores 400 years earlier about a jungle filled with rich cities and roads, convinced Colonel Fawcett that the jungle hid a glorious city of advanced people, much like El Dorado. He called this city Z. His theory drove him to explore the Amazon obsessively to the exclusion of all else.
Although his theory sounds crazy—partially because anthropologists consider a rain forest a false paradise, a place that cannot sustain life on a vast scale—Fawcett saw first hand how quickly a jungle can reclaim human structures. His ideas were ahead of their time, and he was heralded as a quack, but he was right. We now know that cities once dotted the jungle.
Anyway, Colonel Fawcett never came back from his 1925 expedition in the rain forest—accompanied only by his son and his son’s best friend—and his disappearance has been an enduring mystery for decades. One of the greatest.
Nearly 80 years later, David Grann wanted to know what happened to the colonel, so he read the same paper’s, went over Fawcett’s correspondence, and made his way to the jungle (except he came out).
You want to know what happens next, right? Suffice it to say: if David Grann had found out conclusively what had happened to Colonel Fawcett, it would have been plastered all over the news. But that’s not really the point. The point of the book is the journey that you take with both Colonel Fawcett and David Grann, the journey through both the jungle and the avenues of the mind.
The Characters. Just from the way that Grann described Colonel Fawcett—a sketch taken from family, friends, correspondence, and the colonel’s own writings—I could see the larger-than-life personality, the fierce focus and resolve that characterized his life and death. It’s almost a shame that he let the City of Z obsess him to the exclusion even of his own family. I’m not sure if his devoted wife, unswerving in her faith in him and Z, enabled or truly helped him. At least her loyalty kept the family together during his months and years (at a time) of exploration. No woman who believed him even a little less could have managed to survive that sort of strain on a marriage.
David Grann inserts himself into the book (as it is his journey as well), and I was amused by his frank characterization of himself. But I think the most fascinating character was Brian, Colonel Fawcett’s second oldest son and the one that didn’t go with him on that last expedition. Brian started to undertake his father’s mission and came to the conclusion that David did and Percy should have that such obsession can cheat you of what you already have.
The Storyline. The story starts out with Colonel Fawcett leaving on his last expedition, and then rewinds for a life sketch with David appearing 80 years later as he trace’s the colonel’s steps. It’s a clever way of telling a story, one that fully engages you in the same journey, like the three of you are chummily exploring the way together.
Probably the most intriguing part of the story, though, had nothing to do with the Amazon: it was when Colonel Fawcett volunteered to fight in World War I; it was like a stark derivation from a fixed point, the bloody reality of war cutting through the misty magic of green shrouded forests. It was like waking briefly from a dream. Once in a while, the colonel melded the two in a ghastly, charming way that only he could manage:
“Fawcett, quoting a companion, wrote that cannibalism ‘at least provides a reasonable motive for killing a man, which is more than you can say for civilized warfare.’
The Writing. Despite accuracy and staying close to fact, Grann impressively managed to turn this into an engaging book, not a dry recitation of fact. He’s irreverently funny:
“Explorers are not, perhaps, the most promising people with whom to build a society. Indeed, some might say that explorers become explorers precisely because they have a streak of unsociability and a need to remove themselves at regular intervals as far as possible from their fellow men.”
With the soul of a poet:
“The rain forest was not a garden of easy abundance, but precisely the opposite. Its quiet, shaded halls of leafy opulence were not a sanctuary, but rather the greatest natural battlefield anywhere on the planet, hosting an unremitting and remorseless fight for survival that occupied every single one of its inhabitants, every minute of every day.”
This book appealed to almost every part of me from the dark beauty of the Amazon with an adventurous hero to an interesting history. Most importantly, the book vindicates Colonel Fawcett, adding a surprise ending that made me happy for all the dreamers out there.