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The Lost City of Z by David Grann (Review)

“The finished story of Fawcett seemed to reside eternally beyond the horizon: a hidden metropolis of words and paragraphs, my own Z.”

In 1925, the internationally known superstar explorer, Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, disappeared into the vast Amazon rain forest with two companions, never to be heard from again. His vanishing captivated the world at the time – his exploits in South America had been followed all across the globe via news reel, wire reports, and newspaper headlines – only to have it all fade into obscurity as the century aged. Fawcett was a man obsessed – he spent his entire adult life searching for a rumor, a myth, his own personal “el Dorado” – an ancient city deep within the Amazon, forever eluding the Western explorer, that he had secretively dubbed “Z”. Since he vanished over 80 years ago, generations of explorers have gone searching for Fawcett and his city of Z, only to be consumed by the forest themselves. When journalist David Grann stumbled upon Fawcett’s story – which by the 21st century had faded far from the public eye – he became obsessed in his own right with uncovering what had happened to the Colonel and his companions.

The Amazon, even today, is mostly uncharted wilderness – over 2 million square miles of dense rain forest and the most bio-diverse region on the planet. Imagine what that might have been like for a Victorian-era explorer – no satellite imagery, no GPS, no radios and plenty of poison frogs, billions of mosquitoes, bot flies, vampire bats, and possibly hostile local tribes. Fawcett first arrived in the Amazon in 1906 – sent by the Royal Geographical Society of London as an impartial cartographer. The region was so unexplored and virtually uncharted, that Bolivia and Brazil could not agree on their shared border through the forest – hence the R.G.S. sent Fawcett to chart the region and help define that border. So, without ever having been to South America before, let alone anywhere near the Amazon river, he successfully charted the territory – a full year faster than anyone anticipated. By 1911, Fawcett was an international celebrity – his success on multiple charting missions in the rain forest was unprecedented and captured the imaginations of most of the developing world. He managed to befriend most of the indigenous tribes he met, virtually ensuring his survival in the region and seemed to have an uncanny knack for not falling ill or getting injured while exploring. It was around this time, through discussions with tribes and exchanges of rumors, that Fawcett began developing his theory that there had at least at one time existed a large scale civilization within the rain forest, rivaling that of the Inca, Aztec, or the Maya. It became his life obsession.

“Anthropologists,” Heckenberger said, “made the mistake of coming into the Amazon in the twentieth century and seeing only small tribes and saying, ‘Well, that’s all there is.’ The problem is that, by then, many Indian populations had already been wiped out by what was essentially a holocaust from European contact. That’s why the first Europeans in the Amazon described such massive settlements, that, later, no one could ever find.”

David Grann, a journalist for the New Yorker, stumbled upon Colonel Fawcett’s story while researching an Arthur Conan Doyle piece in 2004. Fawcett was rumored to be the inspiration for Doyle’s The Lost World – a tale of a plateau hidden deep in the rain forest where dinosaurs had avoided extinction – and Grann unearthed some private papers of Fawcett’s which seemed to act as a guide to his ultimate destination when he disappeared in 1925.

Strapped for cash and in danger of losing his once vaunted international acclaim (victim to a 1920’s “what have you done for me lately” sort of thing), Fawcett had decided to head out on one final foray into the jungle in that fateful year, accompanied only by his 21-year old son Jack and Jack’s best friend Raleigh Rimell. As part of his deep obsession with the city he called Z, Fawcett left behind false clues as to his actual destination to throw off any would-be explorers that may have followed in his wake. Grann, in the midst of his burgeoning Fawcett obsession, uncovered the true starting point for the actual destination Fawcett was headed for in 1925 – something no one else had managed to do in the 80 years Fawcett had been missing.

Grann pens Fawcett’s tale with fabulous narrative aplomb – constantly keeping you guessing at what may lie across the next uncharted river or through the next stand of massive, sunlight devouring trees. The pace is perfect throughout – Grann sprinkles just enough of his comparatively anemic 21st century excursion into the jungle within the history lesson that is Fawcett’s life to keep the reader fully engaged and, well, a little bit obsessed with the story. His own obsession pales in comparison with that of the Colonel – he follows him, yes, into the heart of the Amazon, but with the express goal of coming out again to write this story, not to perish in the rain forest without any answers. (To perish would be decidedly Victorian and not very New Yorker.) But the most compelling element, even with the mounting suspense over what actually happened to Fawcett and his son, is in what Grann learns while searching deep in the forests of Brazil. His jungle conversations with archaeologist-gone-native, Michael Heckenberger, reveal some truly remarkable and archaeologically groundbreaking finds that actually lend some truth to Fawcett’s theory of the Lost City of Z. The final chapter reads like an edge-of-your-seat adventure novel, complete with bombshell surprises and a cliffhanger ending, while keeping grounded in reality by the journalist’s presence. Could this crazed, Indiana Jones-type have been onto something – even without having any real proof? Could there have existed a massive, advanced civilization – complete with highways, bridges, and multiple townships – beneath the impenetrable canopy of the Amazon rain forest? There seems to be a certain irony that the life of this explorer has been as obscured by the annals of history as his obsession – Z – has been obscured by the forest canopy.

One final note: my suggestion to you, not just as a bookseller, but as a friend, is this: as soon as this book is published (February 24), just get yourself a copy and read it, because Fawcett’s story is going to become fairly common knowledge in the years to come. Brad Pitt purchased the film rights to Grann’s book back in April of 2008 and is rumored to be in pre-production already with his director, James Gray. Don’t let him ruin it for you.

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2 comments on “The Lost City of Z by David Grann (Review)

  1. Anonymous
    February 12, 2009

    I read the original article in The New Yorker when it came out and basically wished the whole time I was reading that it would never end. Right now, I am finishing Cryptonmicon for like the fifth time, so I got really excited when I read this review, then really annoyed that the book doesn’t come out till later in the month. Then jealous of you because you had a copy. Regardless, I’ll be scooping this when it comes out.I miss reviewing books. -big red

  2. Marko
    February 13, 2009

    This book’s gonna be off tha hook when it comes out. The nonfiction book of the year. The end just blew my mind – the implications concerning Z were just phenomenal, anthropologically speaking.

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This entry was posted on January 21, 2009 by in Colonel Fawcett, David Grann, review.
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