The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
By David Grann. Doubleday, 339 pp, $32, hardcover
Sometimes the most fascinating story is the one without a final chapter. At the spot where the hero disappears and the trail plays out into silence, the imagination takes its firmest hold.
In early 1925, 57-year-old British explorer Percy Fawcett set off into the Amazon wilderness with his 22-year-old son and a family friend. As David Grann describes him in The Lost City of Z, Fawcett was the last of the Victorian era’s hard-bitten adventurers, a man who waded “into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose”. The self-taught anthropologist was already famous for a series of gruelling map-making expeditions in the region. This time, however, he was in search of a quasi-mythical place he called Z, the ruins of an ancient civilization that he believed lay hidden in the densely knotted forest.
Many scholars then and since have argued that the Amazon’s environment can’t produce enough food to sustain a large agrarian society, but Fawcett’s faith in the existence of Z had grown more and more intense over decades, stoked by Native lore and his own increasingly ornate theories. With a newspaper chain as his sponsor, he sent out regular dispatches during the early stages of his journey, turning its progress into a worldwide news phenomenon. Then, just weeks after departing, he and his two companions vanished.
The list of possible reasons for this is long, as Grann makes clear. A broken limb would be fatal in such conditions, but if that was avoided, there were always piranhas, anacondas, poisonous frogs, burrowing maggots, blindness-inducing worms, cyanide-squirting millipedes—not to mention malaria, espundia, yellow fever, starvation, and madness. There was also the lethal hostility that many indigenous peoples felt toward Europeans, the result of atrocities committed by rubber traders and so-called civilizers. Yet, however unsurprising, the disappearance spawned generations of “Fawcett freaks” fixated on the riddle of the expedition’s fate.
Grann speaks with first-hand knowledge about the pull of this obsession. In chapters alternating with the Fawcett saga, he recounts his meeting with the explorer’s last surviving granddaughter, his archival research, and his own long nights with maps and diaries strewn across his desk. In the end he, too, follows Fawcett into the Amazon, crossing landscapes that have been stripped bare to make way for soybean farms. What Grann finds at his final stop, in a remote Indian village where Fawcett was last seen alive, is strangely moving, suggesting as it does that the explorer may have been more right than wrong about the miragelike city that led him to his lonely death. In a world of Google Maps and globalized commerce, mystery survives.