No, I haven't started reading books that exclusively feature the word "lost" in the title (The Lost Symbol and now The Lost City of Z). But I do love a bit of a wild ride through an unsolved mystery, and this book has all that and more. The author combines the best of adventure and mystery and asks that creepy but fascinating question: what happened? And he does so using his brain and his brawn as he tracks the explorer Percy Fawcett's expeditions into the Amazon in search of a lost city that Fawcett calls "Z". Ultimately this leads the author himself to set sail for the jungle from where he dispatches this piece that's part history, part story, and part conjecture.
The story of what happened to Percy Fawcett and his crew, including his son Brian, who disappeared and died in the Amazon in or after 1925 (the exact point of their deaths is a mystery) is full of intrigue, and David Grann is not the first to write about it or be obsessed with it. Several other explorers have lost their lives, or come close to it, looking for Percy and his boy, or in search of the same ancient lost city that P.H.F. (as Fawcett's wife Nina called him) so desperately sought because he believed it existed. Today the Internet is ripe with people that see history Fawcett's way and want proof of a civilization similar to that of Machu Picchu. Scientists, archeologists, and anthropologists will have to keep looking, because as of now no concrete, irrefutable proof exists of such a kingdom. But it's fun to think "what if?"
What I like about Grann's approach, and what makes this book so enjoyable, is the way he mixes in his own journey to the places Fawcett visited some 80 years earlier by giving us a well told history of Fawcett, of the heartache and tribulations of exploration at that time, of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), and of other explorers and the Indian people and tribes themselves. Listen to a simple, yet insightful passage on what Fawcett and his colleague Henry Costin once observed:
"[Fawcett] was struck by the fact that, unlike the emaciated explorers, [the natives] had substantial resources of food. One Guarayo crushed a plant with a stone and let its juice spill into a stream, where it formed a milky cloud. 'After a few minutes a fish came to the surface, swimming in a circle, mouth gaping, and then turned on its back apparently dead,' Costin recalled. 'Soon there were a dozen fish floating belly up.' They had been poisoned. A Guarayo boy waded into the water and picked out the fattest ones for eating. The quantity of poison only stunned them and posed no risk to humans when the fish were cooked; equally remarkable, the fish that the boy had left in the water soon returned to life and swam away unharmed. The same poison was often used for toothaches. The Indians, Fawcett was discovering, were masters of pharmacology, adept at manipulating the environment to suit their needs, and he concluded that the Guarayos were 'a most intelligent race of people' ."
And when Grann takes his own trip into the jungle he meets a very old Indian woman who knew of Fawcett in her younger years. He writes, "Before we said goodbye, she remembered something else about Fawcett. For years, she said, other people came from far away to ask about the missing explorers. She stared at me, her narrow eyes widening. 'What is it that these white people did?' she asked. 'Why is it so important for their tribe to find them ?"*
What I liked about this book: the author. He's well written, well researched, and well traveled. He's obviously smart with the capacity to understand wide amounts of data, and then to discern it and to whittle it down in an understandable fashion for the rest of us. (I am sure his editors helped.) Scientist, investigative journalist, explorer, and historian. One of my new favorite authors. I'll have to start reading his writing in The New Yorker. The pictures, mid-book, are great too.
What I did not like about this book: only one thing. I thought Grann could have included more of his own journey than he did. I kept waiting for it but it only comes, in an all too brief way, near the end of these 277 pages.
*That was my favorite line in the whole book. Second favorite was when Grann's interpreter/guide tells him, " 'Only the Indians respect the forest,' Paolo said. 'The white people cut it all down.' " Sad but true.