Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

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

Author: David Grann

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Date Published: February 2009 (Hardcover Edition)

Pages: 352 (eBook Edition)

     David Gann is a staff writer for "The New Yorker" and has written about varied and unusual topics. None, however, are more unusual than the story of British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett which he tells in The Lost City of Z.  This book is intriguing on several levels.

     First and formemost, this is the story of Colonel Percy Fawcett.  This eccentric was a soldier, an explorer, a dreamer and, in his later years considered somewhat of a quack.  Early in his explorer career he was funded by the Royal Geographic Society and led many successful  trips to South America, including one during which he mapped the entire eastern boundary of the country of Bolivia.  He used primitive maps and devices to plot his locations.  He showed an incredible bravery and an uncanny immunity to illness and fatigue during his expeditions, often willing his companions forward during particularly harsh times.  In his later years Fawcett became interested in the occult and wrote articles about the after life and the spirit world.  These did not enhance his reputation as a scientist and undermined his attempts to fund his attempt to find  the mythical city of "El Dorado" (or city of gold) which had been searched for by many previous European explorers.  He finally arranged one more trip to the Amazon to find what he called "The Lost City of Z", taking his oldest son with him.  In 1925 Fawcett and his entourage disappeared into the jungle and their fate was never discovered.  Over the years, stories abounded regarding Fawcett and his son.  It was feared that they had been killed and eaten by cannibals, had been captured and assumed into a primitive culture or, finally, thought to have actually found their elusive lost city and become the rulers of the unimaginably rich tribe.

    Secondly, this book is a modern attempt to find the true story behind the disappearance.  The author uses modern technology, including Google Earth and satellite imagery, as well as personal research records held by Fawcett heirs and the Royal Geographic Society to try to discover Fawcett's plan for his 1925 expedition.  Fawcett used codes and obfuscation in order to confuse competitors who were also searching for the lost city, making the author's work somewhat of a detective story as well.  Grann does a tremendous job juxtaposing his modern investigation with Fawcett's paranoid and somewhat maniacal plans.  The contrast between Fawcett pouring over ancient maps and records from explorers of the 17th and 18th centuries and Gann's use of computer guided research is remarkable.

     The author successfully recreates the magic and fantasy of this 19th century explorer, rightfully described as the last of his generation in a rapidly evolving 20th century.  Fawcett clung to his maps and intuition while his competitors were using airplanes and radio communications.  Fawcett was and remains a legend, a model for Arthur Conan Doyle (The Lost World) as well as appearing in a 1990s "Raiders of the Lost Ark" novel.  The Lost City of Z captures this man and presents him with all of his bravura as well as his foibles and idiosyncrasies.  I enjoyed The Lost City of Z very much and recommend it highly.

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