The Lost City of Z
A Tale of Deadly Obsession
in the Amazon
Doubleday: 352 pp., $27.50
For each summit reached or Machu Picchu-like discovery, the history of exploration marks more deaths and failures than can be counted, armies of men after whom nothing was named, who spent their lives chasing after the unnamable.
The Amazon -- biodiverse, so unknown, so full of life while having obliterated so many explorers -- has been, for many, that singular, unconquerable thing.
The need to articulate or define such a point gave rise to the legend of El Dorado, a mythical city in the Amazon said to be filled with uncounted riches. That legend started in the 16th century, when Indians began recounting stories of such a civilization to Spanish conquistadors. Wasn’t it too tempting not to believe? But after hundreds of years of hearsay, countless armies had been driven to what David Grann calls “financial ruin, destitution, starvation, cannibalism, murder, death: these seemed to be the only real manifestations of El Dorado.”
In “The Lost City of Z,” New Yorker staff writer Grann expands his 2005 feature for that magazine, illuminating Col. Percy Fawcett’s doomed trek into the Amazon searching for the lost civilization that he dubbed Z. (One question he fails to address: Why did no one write this book before?) Fawcett counts not just among the formerly obsessed but also as part of current legend: His remains have yet to be found since he disappeared in 1925, his life reportedly inspired the creation of the character Indiana Jones, and copycat efforts have led to more than 100 known deaths.
Grann expertly juggles narratives, including the story of a famous, ill-fated 1996 mission to retrace Fawcett’s steps; the history of exploration in the Amazon; and Fawcett’s own venture toward Z. It’s hard to imagine that Grann left any worthwhile stone uncovered, after visiting Fawcett’s granddaughter, the Royal Geographical Society’s archives in London, Brazil’s National Library in Rio de Janeiro and a fair share of archaeologists. Grann combines narrative and primary documents for a breathtaking clarity of scene and immediacy; any writer who can breathe life into letters written by scientists in the early 1900s deserves more than a hat tip. Grann brings Fawcett’s remarkable story to a beautifully written, perfectly paced fruition
The character portrait that emerges is priceless: Fawcett was “a Buddhist who lived like an Indian warrior,” a man whose “demonic fury, single-mindedness, and almost divine sense of immortality” made him both a great explorer and “terrifying to be with.” He was a trained explorer, having received a diploma from the Royal Geographic Society, and his interest developed as Britain sought to map the world.
Fawcett’s first assignment, spying in Morocco under the guise of a cartographer, was lauded by many; his second trip launched him to South America, where he charted and mapped the disputed border between Bolivia and Brazil, finishing a full year ahead of schedule. Fawcett’s “resistance to disease” only emboldened his idea that he was preordained for such missions.
Grann recounts Fawcett’s missions with unsparing detail, killing all romantic ideas of what transpired in the rain forest. When he and the great Antarctic explorer James Murray explored the border between Bolivia and Peru, Murray’s inexperience with the conditions led to a wealth of maladies -- among other things, maggots “growing inside of him. He counted fifty in and around his elbow alone.”
As if Fawcett needed motivation, Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911 immediately became “the pin-up of twentieth-century archeology,” spurring others to seek their own National Geographic spread.
Though he’d already been developing his own theory of Z based on past trips, Fawcett was up against an “eclectic, fractious, monomaniacal bunch”: a famed travelogue writer; a half-Indian Brazilian colonel, Dr. Hamilton Rice, who sported a “bottomless bank account”; and Theodore Roosevelt, who was in South America after losing the 1912 presidential election. Each man brought a unique area of expertise, but even the oversized Amazon “seemed unable to accommodate all of these explorers’ egos and ambitions.”
Despite earning one of the Royal Geographical Society’s highest honors, the Founder’s Medal, Fawcett had some fruitless expeditions that -- coupled with a rising trend in exploration for deploying specialists -- hindered his search for financial backing. Institutional racism didn’t help: Failing to accept that a civilization could have developed independently of the Europeans, many academics and potential sponsors doubted Z’s existence.
Eventually, Fawcett did raise the funds he needed by selling story rights to the North American Newspaper Alliance, which printed dispatches during the journey, with the help of Indian runners, to tens of millions of enthralled readers around the world. When the reports stopped, theories and legend began.
Grann’s fine reporting of the biographical and historical underpinnings renders any psychoanalysis from afar unnecessary. The only time this seems a shortcoming is in Grann himself, who becomes obsessed with Fawcett and goes to the Amazon despite a tendency “to forget where [he is] on the subway.” But how much more obsessed is he writing this story than writing any other? We’re left to draw our own conclusions from his current-day narrative as it gathers steam toward Z.
Without fixating on travel-writing clichés -- that true exploration is impossible or that the only journeys now taken are inward -- Grann recounts his ease in buying a hand-held global positioning system unit and crossing in two days part of the Amazon that had taken Fawcett a month. What he sees during his trip is a region stunningly deforested. The reader is taken just as close to Grann as the author is to Fawcett -- tantalizingly close but never touching. His findings give us as complete a picture of the city of Z as we’re likely to get, even if Fawcett forever remains brilliantly and maddeningly nowhere to be seen.
Starr is a writer and critic who is working on a book about the subject of vacation.