Review

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession In The Amazon

by David Grann

What killed Percy Fawcett and his son Jack as they drove ever
deeper into the unexplored regions of the Amazon jungle?

Was it mere malaria, with its sweats and hallucinations? Or
simple yellow fever, with its bone-breaking chills and nausea? Was
it one of the many species of snake, such as the venomous coral or
the crushing 60-foot-long anaconda? Or was it something devious and
tormenting like the incessant bites of mosquitoes, flies and ants
that could drive a man insane, especially if he had the poor
judgment to sleep on the ground? Was it perhaps espundia, lesions
that destroy the mucosal surface of the nose, pharynx and larynx,
and quickly eat away the face “as if the person were slowly
dissolving”? Or was it an arrow from the bow of a hostile
Indian, coated with poison so potent that it could blacken a
man’s leg and rise to paralyze his heart within hours? Or the
treatment by the Indians upon being captured, torture that ranged
from being buried alive to the waist and slowly devoured by flies
and burrowing maggots that invaded the still living flesh, to being
hurled into one of the many twisting fast-rising rivers to be
picked apart by the razor sharp teeth of piranhas? Or were they
drained of blood, pint by agonizing pint, from the assault of
vampire bats?

Whatever fate befell them, one thing is now certain. Percy
Fawcett, world famous explorer who bestrode the Victorian world
like a colossus, is dead. Author David Grann, a self-described
risk-avoider (“given the choice each day between climbing the
two flights of stairs to my apartment or riding the elevator, I
invariably take the elevator”), found himself caught in
“the grip” of Fawcett’s famous exploits, so much
so that he felt he must go to the Amazonian jungle himself and try
to find some remnant, some evidence, some clue to the last
whereabouts of the intrepid adventurer and his athletic,
like-minded son. Never mind that hundreds of people since 1925,
when Percy and Jack set off, had attempted the same fact-finding
mission and many of them likewise never returned.

Grann’s book flies through time, from the early life of
Fawcett (a deserting father, a cold, rejecting mother, a stint in
the sadistic world of British public schools, followed by further
discipline in one of the more draconian military academies); to his
inculcation, in Ceylon, into his “destiny” of grand
quest for lost cities and undreamed of treasure; to the bizarre
fascination Fawcett and Jack nursed for the arcane philosophy of
the spiritualist Madame Blavatsky; to the day they set off,
convinced they would find the mythical city called Z deep in the
Brazilian jungle; to the present, as Grann seeks to uncover through
extant sources some clue to the mystery of Fawcett’s walk off
the map. Even as Grann tells us about his meeting with
Fawcett’s granddaughter and his own preparations for his
journey to the jungle, he is taking us back to the multitude of
almost unbelievable dangers faced by Fawcett and his son in the
dark uncharted forest floor.

That Fawcett could succeed was underscored by the fact that in
1911 American historian Hiram Bingham almost by accident
encountered Machu Picchu, certainly one of the planet’s
greatest architectural and cultural monuments just sitting there
for centuries unviewed by Western eyes. That Fawcett could fail was
obvious; many men in his own parties on earlier missions had died
horribly, while Fawcett, a gangling heavily mustachioed man of
brooding disposition, seemed impervious to fevers and fear. The
basic fact was that Fawcett, a man among men, was simply determined
to go where no man had gone before, and there were fewer and fewer
places where that was possible. His search for the city of Z became
a model for such popular sagas as Arthur Conan Doyle’s THE
LOST WORLD and the 1991 novel INDIANA JONES AND THE SEVEN
VEILS.

One discovery that Grann makes is that civilization --- in the
form of well-constructed buildings, fencing and other signs of
organization --- can melt away in the jungle labyrinth in only a
generation or two. One of the places Fawcett used as an outpost is
now nothing but a few bricks lining the forest floor. Grann also
realized that some natural phenomena in the Amazonian house of
illusions look seductively man-made, such as a stand of stone
columns and arches that are the result of centuries of erosion and
have fooled many an educated explorer into thinking he had come
upon a lost city, a city like Z.

Grann was right. There was no way through it but to do it. He
had to go where Fawcett had gone and see for himself. To tell
everything he found out would spoil the fun of this highly
detailed, exhaustively investigated historical mystery, which truly
keeps its reader in “the grip.”

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 6, 2011

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession In The Amazon
by David Grann

  • Publication Date: February 24, 2009
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday
  • ISBN-10: 0385513534
  • ISBN-13: 9780385513531