In 1925, famed British explorer Percy Fawcett ventured deep into the Amazon jungle with his 21 year-old son and his son’s best friend in the hopes of finding the remnants of an ancient civilization that he called Z. Though the world breathlessly waited for word of his discoveries, Fawcett and his party were never seen again. Their disappearance is the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century and hundreds lost their lives trying to find out what happened to the missing party. In The Lost City of Z (Doubleday 2009), journalist David Grann delves into Fawcett’s life and career to discover what drove him into the jungle that final time. Interspersed with the main narrative, Grann chronicles his own increasingly fervent quest to find out what happened to Fawcett and company.
First of all, this book is very well written. It takes a lot of skill to make 100 year-old scientific journals interesting, at least for the average, non-sciency reader (aka: me). It’s impeccably researched and Grann even managed to get access to family papers that had never been made public before. I also think it was smart of Grann to alternate Fawcett’s story with his own quest. First of all, Grann’s self-deprecating humor is a nice break from the horrors of the jungle, but mostly it helps make the reader a part of the search for Fawcett much more than a traditional biography would.
It also helps that Fawcett himself is a fascinating, though unlikeable, subject. He was the first to travel to unexplored regions of this world and he did so with little more than a machete. He was unbelievably brave and a brilliant strategist. He was also a huge prick. He had no qualms about abandoning his family for months and years at a time and wasn’t that great to be around when he was home. Not to mention the fact that his family was pretty much always broke because it’s not like traipsing around the jungle pays a whole lot. He had very little patience for people who did not have his superhuman fortitude and stamina, and though some of his ideas were pretty radical at the time, he was still very much mired in the Eurocentric, racist ideology of the day. There were times when I was awed by his courage and others when I wanted to punch him in the throat.
The Lost City of Z is a very good book and I enjoyed reading it, yet something kept me from being completely sucked into the story. I think it’s because I think that anyone who travels to such hostile environments is fucking nuts. I admire the drive, but Mother Nature has about 876,532 ways to kill you and if you willing enter the wilderness, then you deserve what you get. And the descriptions of killer piranhas, flesh-eating diseases, and maggots burrowing under skin certainly didn’t change my mind. Umm, gross. Not to mention the hostile native tribes, which considering outsiders have brought forced cultural assimilation, horrible disease, and genocide, I wouldn’t blame them for killing any intruders!
Ultimately though, The Lost City of Z is really a story about obsession: Fawcett’s obsession with Z and Grann’s obsession with Fawcett. Even if I can’t get behind these particular obsessions, I do relate to the concept in general as I’ve had a few obsessions in my day. I won’t spoil what Grann finds out about Fawcett, or even IF he finds out anything, but what I got out of his search is that it’s important for scientists and anthropologists to keep asking questions and redefining what we know about our history, ourselves, and our world. Especially if I’m not the one roughing it in the middle of nowhere to get those answers.