The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

by: David Grann

A new addition to my "deliberately put yourself into a dangerous and horrible situation" book enthusiasm, this book has all the vicarious thrills of the caving, climbing, and lost-in-the-Arctic real-life adventures reviewed previously.

The author adopted a workable conceit: he bounces back and forth between the story of  late-Victorian adventurer, Percy Fawcett, who, early in the past century, ventured into the Amazon jungle, never to be hear from again; and his own trip into that same jungle in this century, tracing Fawcett's last known steps.

In many ways, this book is better than a novel on the same subject: you've got a single-minded, even, as the title suggest, obsessive main character; an incredibly dangerous environment (snakes, bugs, hostile natives, hunger, thirst, and heat);and the lure of promised treasure, both intellectual and monetary.

Essentially, Fawcett sets out to find what he believes is proof that an advanced culture once thrived in the Amazon jungle. Popular wisdom in the late 1800s was that the environment was too hostile to support and nurture anything like a complex civilization. Fawcett disagrees, and, leaving his wife and small child behind (basically to fend for themselves!), he embarks on the first of several horrific forays into one of the most discouraging environments imaginable.

Among other treats, the Amazon is full of some of the most vicious bugs ever described in a book: bees that bite your lips and deposit larvae there which, 20 years or so down the road end up killing you; mosquitoes that swarm you and leave behind malaria and other incurable diseases; fire ants, who, in sufficient numbers (and there always seems to be sufficient numbers!) can kill with their extraordinarily painful sting; flies that leave maggots which literally live under the skin, growing and gnawing their way to adulthood.

But wait, there's more! Constant dampness makes boots chafe and rub away skin; vampire bats suck blood and leave victims weak and wounded; native tribes who have learned to think of white men as something to be captured and killed (even eaten), or at best held for ransom; and the ever-present double dangers of hunger and thirst. For in a world of excess, there is very little to eat.

The jungle has been likened to the oceans in that very little life (relatively speaking!) exists at depth. Most of the action takes place at the higher levels - or in the case of the jungle, in the treetops. On the jungle floor, food is scarce, and potable water hard to find. Venturing into the rivers and streams is never a good idea, as there is the ever-present danger of piranha (a flesh-eating fish), and particularly nasty parasite that swims up any exposed orifice, latching on with little barbs so that it is more dangerous to remove than to live with.

And transportation is nil. The waterways are only partly navigable, and even if the explorers of the time had had powered vehicles, the terrain - and the vegetation - don't really permit any speedy travel. Since they were forced to trek in the main on foot, they were limited in how much in the way of supplies could be carried - and while they always planned to spend some time "living off the land," it never proved to be a very good plan! For the most part, this meant starving and living off their own bodies' flesh and fat.

The plain fact is that most of the adventurers of the time died in the jungle. Of an expedition of 80, 20 might return - much the worse for wear. Fever, starvation, wounds, exhaustion carried away many.

Fawcett, it turns out, was something of a physical wonder: hale, hearty, big, and possessed of an almost preternatural constitution, he took little pity of his fellow travelers who might be literally crawling after the party, so depleted that they couldn't even stand. While it was an acknowledged fact that if a man became simply too sick, wounded or weak to travel, the party would have to abandon him (so much for Semper Fi!), it seems Fawcett wasn't even willing to slow down his killing pace to allow the weaker members of his party a little extra rest. No doubt he realized that if he didn't make time, he would simply not get deep enough into the jungle to find his prize before being forced to turn back.

Toward the end of his life, Fawcett goes a little mad. Like many of the late Victorians, he becomes enamored of spiritualism and mystic studies, apparently delving into Madame Blavatsky and Theosophy. He becomes more and more sure that some mystic city - which he has dubbed "Z" - exists somewhere deep in the jungle. And he sets out on one, last expedition with his son. Nobody ever returns.

Because he was sure other adventurers would try to get there first - and in fact, they were trying to do that - he deliberately left red herrings in his reports and notes back to the Royal Geographic Society. It's up to writer David Gann to try to sort out the fact from the fiction, and see if he can find some trace of Fawcett and his party nearly 100 years later.

I didn't read this book in one sitting, but it was only about three, as it was very difficult to stop. Gann does a good job of leading us on, and enticing us a little deeper, a little farther, into this inhospitable jungle.  In the end we're just as curious about what happened to Fawcett as he is. So put on your Off, wrap up in your mosquito netting, and start reading!


Popular Posts