Review of The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann
The story told in The Lost City of Zis part adventure story and part biography of explorer Percy Fawcett. The book alternates between the story of Fawcett's quest for the lost city of Z and the author's quest to unravel the mystery behind Fawcett's disappearance deep in the Amazon in 1925.
The book takes a little while to get going, but once Fawcett and his two companions, including his son Jack, head out for the Amazon the story is elevated into the category of great nonfiction.
I had not heard of Percy Fawcett before this book. The story of an explorer setting off into the unknown never to be seen again is a compelling one. The author has two goals in the telling of the story. What happened to Fawcett and his companions? And was there an actual lost city of Z, or was it a phantom quest of an obsessed explorer seeking fame and recognition?
For something that happened so long ago, the author does an excellent job of cobbling together bits and pieces of information from numerous sources into a story that allows the reader to follow along in the explorer's footsteps. The best stories are those that transport the reader to another place and time. David Grann accomplishes this with this book. Not only do you get to experience the Amazon and its peoples as they appeared in the early 1900's, but you get to see the changes that have occurred in the intervening years: large swaths of jungle missing due to logging, indigenous tribes living much like they did eighty years ago but with modern day conveniences such as TV.
Fawcett became convinced of the existence of a lost civilization in the Amazon after coming across accounts from Spanish Explorers who described large settlements with sophisticated architecture, large networks of roads and bridges, and an abundance of gold. Fawcett was also motivated by the discovery of the Inca ruins of Macho Picchu in Peru in 1911. His obsession really took hold when he was shown a small statue that was said to have been recovered in an area of the Amazon where Z, or El Dorado as it was also known, was thought to exist. The statue more than anything fueled his quixotic quest.
But Fawcett was not alone in his search for Z. He had competition from other explorers, some of whom were much better financed than he. Where other explorers took on the task using large parties of both men and animals and even planes, Fawcett felt that he had an advantage with his smaller party and whatever provisions they could carry themselves. While his competitors were sometimes involved in conflicts with the local tribes, Fawcett preferred a nonthreatening approach.
The author eventually reaches Fawcett's last known location in the Amazon. I found this section to be the most interesting. He describes the many efforts over the years to solve Fawcett's disappearance. He also tells the story of Fawcett's wife, Nina, and how she dealt with the many false reports about the whereabouts of her husband and son. One friend compared her to Penelope waiting for Ulysses. Her story is just as sad as that of Fawcett's.
So what happened to Fawcett? And was there a lost city of Z. By the end of this book you'll have a pretty good idea about the answers to both of those questions.