The Lost City of Z, David Grann

Doubleday, 2009, 339 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-51353-1

To the average modern citizen, the world is known, mapped and defined.  The mountains have been climbed, the poles have been reached, the forests have been photographed from above and the dragons have been banished off the charts.  There are no pockets of adventure left, as most of the world is reachable within 48 hours if you have a reasonable amount of money.  There are no undiscovered tribes, no mysteriously vanished cities of gold, no fantastic journeys left to discover.

I’m not mourning for the loss: I like my globe stable and predictable, and the fact that I can go anywhere in the world with enough money and a bit of preparation is a feature as far as I’m concerned.  Especially considering the alternative, which comes naturally after reading David Grann’s The Lost City of Z.  The non-fiction book is a dual narrative covering the life and mysterious disappearance of Victorian-era explorer Percy Fawcett, and Grann’s contemporary quest to find out the truth about Fawcett’s last Amazon expedition.  Whereas Fawcett’s life is filled with accounts of deadly treks in undiscovered lands, Grann’s own adventures take him to archives, walking down a well-traveled path of similarly fascinated enthusiasts wondering what happened to Fawcett after mysteriously vanishing in the jungle.

Perhaps the best thing about The Lost City of Z is the way is brings alive the mystery and romance of the post-Victorian-era of exploration; a time when the last frontiers of the world were being mapped, but also a time when rich bored Englishmen could go to the National Geographic Society to follow a few courses on exploration, and then take it upon themselves to expand the knowledge of a British Empire that was already visibly retreating.  Percy Fawcett was one of those gentlemen-adventurers, relying on other people’s fortune to put together expeditions with the explicit goal of mapping what hasn’t yet been explored.  Gunn does a fine job at explaining the psychology of this curious character, whose action-filled life went on, indirectly, to influence the creation of Indiana Jones.  Fawcett had an eventful love life, quite possibly acted as a spy for the British secret service while in the field (apparently, the explorer training was similar to a spy’s curriculum) and led a number of difficult expeditions in the Amazon before the fateful 1925 trek from which he never returned.

At the same time, we learn a lot about the Amazon jungle.  Arguably too much, as the various deadly horrors of the environment are described at length through the explorer’s journals.  Fawcett was unbelievably resilient, his body shrugging off hardships that ended up killing a significant number of the men traveling with him.  One of the most surprising pieces of information in The Lost City of Z is that the jungle isn’t a particularly good place to feed oneself: much of the ecosystem being located high above in the tree canopy, the explorers found that floor of the jungle could be barren of life-sustaining nutrients.  And that’s without describing the various exotic insects found along the way…

The contemporary counterpoint to Fawcett’s last expedition is Grann’s twenty-first century’s pursuit of the truth.  Fawcett’s disappearance has led to decades of efforts by amateurs looking to retrace the explorer’s steps, to a point where their numbers exasperated National Geographic Society archivists answering requests for the same documents.  Fortunately, Grann is able to get access to the Fawcett family archives and his ultimate visit to the area where Fawcett disappeared is informed by a close look at rumours of his possessions being traded years afterward.  What he finds out doesn’t completely solve the mystery, but it clears it to the point where the rest is just details; Fawcett most likely wandered into an unfriendly tribe’s territory and… do we really want to know more?

His legacy, ultimately, is still being felt.  His search for the mythic city of “Z” is now starting to be confirmed thanks to satellite imagery and a better understanding of how the jungle could sustain a human presence.  If the Amazon has retreated (Grann suggests that many of the areas that Fawcett explored are now clear-cut expanses of agricultural fields), it has also revealed its secrets and helped modern anthropologists discover new facets of the world as it once existed.  The book ends by disproving the notion that the world has already been mapped to completion: there are clearly still new things to discover… even today.

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