When you decide to read a book that is already a popular phenomenon, such as a book with a lengthy stay on the best-seller lists and a Hollywood film adaptation, you often find yourself liking the book or, if not particularly enjoying the work itself at least understanding the aspects that allowed it to become so popular in the first place. For me though, The Lost City of Z falls into a rarer category wherein I at least sort of liked it but have no idea how it became so popular.
David Grann, a specialist in long-form journalism and a former staff-writer at The New Yorker, delves into the story of Percy Fawcett, one of the last of the real explorers, who went missing with his two companions on an expedition into the Amazon in 1925. Fawcett, who had previously mapped hundreds of miles of the Amazon that had never been explored, was traveling in search of a fabled lost city where an advanced ancient civilization was thought to exist though it had never been found. The explorer, caught up in the age of discovery that had started several decades earlier and was rapidly coming to a close, fervently believed in the existence of such a lost city and was arrogant enough to believe that only he could uncover it.
The mystery of Fawcett, his son Jack, and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell captivated the world for years and led to many rescue attempts and further expeditions, some of which ended in death and disaster. Over time, as the men’s deaths seemed more and more apparent, their memory began to fade even as a few hardy and perhaps foolhardy adventurers still sought an answer to the disappearance.
Grann himself finds himself becoming one of the voyagers, much to his own surprise. As a city-dweller in unremarkable physical condition and with no experience as a hiker or outdoorsman, Grann is an unlikely explorer. And that’s before you consider that he would be abandoning his wife and one-year-old child to enter a part of the world where plenty of others have gone only to never be heard from again.
The book is at its best when Grann is relaying Fawcett’s remarkable career as an army officer and explorer. Trained by the Royal Geographic Society, Fawcett goes on several expeditions over a lengthy and venerated career. His supernatural ability to resist the diseases of the jungle makes him a perfect candidate for the grueling work of exploration, though it earns him the scorn of many crew members who find him cruel and unrelenting.
Grann’s impressive historical research allows him to make connections others have missed and get closer than anyone ever has to unraveling the Fawcett mystery than anyone ever has. Modern technology allows him to get farther into the Amazon with much less danger than in Fawcett’s day.
Ultimately though, Grann’s search is not particularly compelling, except perhaps for its scenes of the Amazon’s formerly untouched native tribes adapting to the outside world while maintaining their way of life. It’s not surprising that the movie adaptation has dropped that part of the story altogether.
Fawcett’s story is best viewed as something of an ethical quandary. So much of the knowledge we have gained as a species, so many of the advancement we have made, were only made possible by the tremendous risks taken by men such as Fawcett and at a tremendous cost in lives. Dozens of people died exploring the Amazon, just as so many died reaching the poles, seeking the source of the Nile, climbing Mount Everest, and taking mankind into space. Given all that we owe to these discoveries, is it right to call Fawcett foolish for risking his life in such a seemingly reckless fashion?
Grann is a talented writer and researcher, but his book leaves that question largely unexamined. His straightforward retelling of the Fawcett mystery and his own search for answers leaves the reader wanting more.