Percy Fawcett, last of the intrepid Victorian explorers.
It seems like it should be hard to get lost these days. People carry cell phones to stay in contact. Cars have GPS units. You can map out your route in advance on Google maps. Pets are microchipped.
But people, animals, and things do get lost, or they disappear, never to be seen again, and when that happens, it's devastating. When someone dies or something is destroyed, it's over; when a person, or a pet disappears, you are always haunted by the possibility that they might return. And as long as there's that possibility, it's impossible to move on. When something is lost, everyone attached to the lost is also lost in some way, with those left behind doomed to fall down a rabbit hole forever, unsure of where, when or how it will end.
David Grann's The Lost City of Z is about three lost people who have captured the imagination of many others: Percy Fawcett, last of the intrepid 19th century British explorers, Fawcett's son Jack, and his friend Raleigh Rimmel. In 1925, the trio set off on a highly publicized expedition into the Brazilian jungle in search of El Dorado, the city of Gold that Fawcett called "Z," and never returned. Since then, there has been a veritable cottage industry of people who descend into the jungle trying to find out what happened to Fawcett, and some of them has been lost as well. Just as Fawcett was obsessed with finding Z, so have many others been obsessed with finding Fawcett, so much that members of the Royal Geographic Society, which Fawcett belonged to, sigh and roll their eyes when another person shows up to search their archives, determined to find the clue that has eluded all the others and can lead them to find the fate of the Fawcett party. One librarian Grann talks to hints that many of the Fawcettians are more than a little bit crazy.
One of the last photos of Fawcett, center, before he disappeared. Fawcett shakes hands with one of their guides; Raleigh Rimmel, Jack Fawcett's best friend, stands by the horse.
Grann should know, as he starts out looking at those foolhardy explorers from the outside with a jaundiced eye, remote from the kind of obsession that would lead people to risk their lives to crawl through the still dangerous, unknown jungle in search of a long dead man. Eventually, though, he gets sucked in, and unprepared as possible--a middle-aged writer with no camping experience, who admits he takes the elevator to the second floor--sets off himself into the jungle to try to find Fawcett, and Z.
The book cuts back and forth between the story of Fawcett and Grann's present day adventure. Fawcett had gotten the exploring bug while in the British army in India, and upon his return to England, took a training course at the Royal Geographic Society where he learned how to use instruments like sextants and theodolites, so he could be one of the stalwart Victorian men who measured the world, filling in the blanks spaces on maps that meant the unknown. Fawcett endured several adventures in South America, undergoing all the horrors you hear of in any account of nineteenth century exploration--starvation, illness, and the constant onslaught of insects that bit, stung, and burrowed their way into the bodies of those foolish enough to enter their world. Fawcett, though, emerged from the jungle time and again, his mission accomplished, a new place conquered and defined. His success rate--not to mention survival--was impressive, and the speed with which he completed his journeys even more so. Fawcett was fearless and perhaps even more importantly, had an illness-defying constitution that kept him going easily while his companions were felled by malaria, dysentery, or maggot-filled wounds. Although he wrote longingly of life at home with his family while out exploring, once he returned to England, he found himself itching for the jungle again and ready to set off on a new expedition. He seemed to be fearless and the epitome of the strong brave British men who had run the world during the 19th century. The adventure novelist H.R. Haggard modeled one of his heroes after Fawcett, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based a character in "The Lost World" on Fawcett.
Fawcett was the likely inspiration for explorer Sir John Roxton in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Check out the rather impressive stop-motion dinosaurs from the 1925 film of the novel.
By the time 1925 rolled around, though, men like Fawcett were out of fashion. Explorers were now specialists--archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, ornithologists trained to analyze scientifically and draw conclusions based on careful collections of data. Fawcett was an observer, but that was all. He had very Victorian views of native cultures and traditional beliefs about history. Fawcett found places and things, but he wasn't going to use what he found to answer questions. Worse, technology was making Fawcett's best skill--his daring and hardiness--obsolete; Fawcett's main rival, the wealthy Dr. Alexander Hamilton Rice made a trip to the Amazon in the early 1920s where he used an airplane to take pictures of the jungle below. For Fawcett, the expedition to find Z was a last stand in many ways--a last chance to make some money for his family (exploring wasn't paying well by the time the 20th century rolled around) and a last chance to do something great. Finding Z would seal his place in history. But it may also have been something else. Fawcett had served in World War I and saw his share of horrors. After he came out, like so many others, he sank himself into a world of occult beliefs, theosophy, and spiritualism; his surviving son Brian later speculated that Fawcett may not have believed in Z so much as a real, ancient city as a mystical place where he could find some kind of spiritual fulfillment and escape from the material world.
It was hard to determine whether the Fawcett party had truly disappeared. There had been too many times before when explorers had gone off into the wild and emerged two, three or more years later. As time, passed, though, people began to try to find him, hoping to be Stanley to Fawcett's Livingstone. Some wanted to win fame and fortune; others looked for the romance of the jungle, and an escape from the dreary day to day (one man wrote to the Royal Geographic society, volunteering to join the search because he and his wife had decided that they "needed some time apart."). Those who tried met unpleasant fates. A Hollywood actor who was a bit too melodramatic for his own good disappeared while searching for Fawcett. One of the first female anthropologists survived her search initially but died later of an infection she caught in the jungle. A Swiss man who claimed to have met Fawcett while himself being held captive by hostile Indians went back to get him and disappeared (his story about meeting Fawcett also had too many holes to survive close scrutiny). In 1996, a Brazilian banker and his son teamed up to go find Fawcett and themselves were captured by Indians; they negotiated their release and survived.
Grann interviews the banker and finds that despite his ordeal and narrow escape, he is itching to try again and wishes he could go with Grann on his own quest. This is one of the most confounding thing you will find in any accounts of explorers--that despite the physical and mental torture they underwent (especially in the 19th century), they keep going back. It's as if exploration itself is a fever that isn't easily broken.
For Grann, the fever pays off, as he finds enough people in the jungle to patch together the likely fate of the Fawcett party, that they were slaughtered by a hostile tribe. More importantly he meets up with an archaeologist who had been living in the jungle for years, studying the area, and who can point out the traces of what may have been Z--not an El Dorado city of gold, but a complex place built by sophisticated people. The book ends with Grann watching in wonderment as the members of the tribe who gave him the information about Fawcett perform one of their ceremonial dances, something handed down for centuries, on the remains of the ancient city of Z. The city may not have been gold, but witnessing the chain of history, past and present, linked together is its own kind of treasure.
This book reads like an adventure story written by Haggard, with the tales of the various adventurers--Fawcett, his seekers, and Grann--neatly woven together. It's a risky move for a writer to put himself into the story, because all too often it comes off as obnoxious and self-aggrandizing. But Grann is a pleasant enough guide, who is far from impressed with himself and very aware of his own shortcomings. Instead of making the story about him, he makes it more into a story of how, despite all the technology, materials and equipment we have, the Amazon is only marginally less dangerous today than it was in 1925. "The Lost City of Z" is that rarity for nonfiction--a page turner.
I was going to end this with some kind of boring attempt to say something about how we all have our own Z, our own El Dorado, which can lead us astray and into destruction if we're not careful. But I think we all know that. And I think we all know that the fear of getting lost is very real, and the possibility of it is something that no one has been able to conquer. Whether your search is mental or physical, it can overwhelm, and you can become lost in your own obsession. I wonder, though, if it is worse to have no obsession at all. A life without an El Dorado forever on the horizon might be safer, but that may be its own kind of loss.