Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Grann

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (2009), by David Grann, a writer for the New Yorker magazine, is about the British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, who played a major role in mapping uncharted regions of the Amazonian jungle during the first decades of the 20th century.  Over the course of his career, Fawcett convinced himself that the fabled city of El Dorado (the city of Z), a place of vast treasures and gold left over from a native civilization of hundreds of years before, really did exist.  He made several expeditions to look for it and in the process had incredible adventures, encountered hostile Indians, some of whom he became friends with, fought off snakes, disease, and millions of insects.

Fawcett and others (including his wife) came to believe he was invincible. He was a stern man of unusual physical stamina who expected others in his expeditions to meet his standards of endurance.  Many of the men who worked for him hated him.  The rest would follow him anywhere.  Many of them died, unfortunately.  In 1925, he made his last expedition in search of the city of Z.  He took his 18-year-old son and his son’s best friend along.  They disappeared into the Amazonian forests, sent messages back to the civilized world for several months, and then went silent. They were never seen again, though Fawcett’s wedding ring turned up in a souvenir shop some years later.  Fawcett’s disappearance became the stuff of legend. It motivated other adventurers (including David Grann) to go into the Amazonian jungles to try to find out what happened.  All of them failed, and many disappeared—one estimate says at least as many as 100 died looking for evidence of Fawcett and his lost city.

Fawcett was a true-life version of Indiana Jones, but with serious defects.  He led many men to their deaths—including his son.  He abandoned his wife and family for long stretches of time and ultimately left them relatively penniless.  He exploited natives who helped him and patrons who believed in what he was doing.  He spent significant sums of money donated to his expeditions by the National Geographic Society. He represented some of the worst sins and excesses of colonialism, yet he was also a man of genius and courage (although foolhardiness and recklessness might be preferable alternatives to the word).

The Lost City of Z presents the tale of a fascinating and forbidding man.  It is a study in ambition, arrogance, delusion, the early history of South America, and of exploration. For reasons who enjoy in any combination stories of adventure, romance, mystery, deluded monomaniacs, and jungles, this book will satisfy. 

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