European explorers long hoped to find a great civilization in the heart of the South American rainforest, and many went to their death tramping through the jungle looking for it. David Grann’s The Lost City of Z bills itself as a book about the search for that civilization. But it is much better described as the story of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett and his time in the Amazon. He is there to search for Z, though not initially, and the stories of several others who sought El Dorado are here too. But Fawcett and his numerous trips to Brazil are the central focus.
Fawcett’s story was a great read because he’s probably the most exciting and important explorer I’d never heard of. Forging into the Amazon virtually on his own, mapping hundreds of square miles of Brazil and neighboring countries, befriending natives left and right. I couldn’t believe I had missed knowing about a man who helped inspire Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World—and whom people have been following into the jungle for 85 years.
Grann follows him there too, and that means reading about a Brooklyn yuppie shopping for Amazon camping gear (fortunately he does not take himself at all seriously). Grann uses his experience as a story to tell alongside Fawcett’s and those of a few other notable trips, and the technique is well done. Still, I would rather have heard him describe himself researching Fawcett to write a book, instead of in preparation for his own trip to find Z. Then again it’s nice to get back to contemporary life once in a while, when the jungle is just a bit more manageable, and the stories of Grann’s predecessors—search parties as well as lone Fawcett enthusiasts—are adventures in themselves.
But the descriptions of the jungle and its hardships were good enough to give me the chills in places, despite a few unfortunate turns of phrase like “virulent bacteria.” Perhaps Grann’s time in the Amazon made him personally familiar with the hundreds of insect pests faced by Fawcett and the others.
My biggest concern throughout was: what is Grann going to conclude? He is trekking into the Amazon not to find Fawcett but to see if Z could have been real, or if Fawcett was deluded. I wasn’t expecting him to say he found Z, of course—I think I would have heard about that. And to go thousands of miles on a dangerous trip just to say, “Well, it’s all a mystery,” seemed too anticlimactic to be endured. Instead, though, Grann recounts his meeting with a University of Florida anthropologist who lives in a remote village. The researcher shows him evidence of a Z of sorts, not half as magical as the explorers thought, of course, but maybe more spectacular in its reality than all those dreams and stories.
Addendum: Reading a nonmaritime adventure story was almost surprisingly fun—but then again I did love King Solomon’s Mines too—but very different. Grann describes one of Fawcett’s companions, a man who had previously been only on trips to the Antarctic. His experience is one of unending bleakness, whiteness, and that experience doesn’t help him at all in getting through the jungle with Fawcett. I’m feeling like the sea is much more like the poles.