Friday 18 June 2010

Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

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""Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, the inspiration behind Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World, was among the last of a legendary breed of British explorers. For years he explored the Amazon and came to believe that its jungle concealed a large, complex civilization, like El Dorado. Obsessed with its discovery, he christened it the City of Z. In 1925, Fawcett headed into the wilderness with his son Jack, vowing to make history. They vanished without a trace. For the next eighty years, hordes of explorers plunged into the jungle, trying to find evidence of Fawcett's party or Z. Some died from disease and starvation; others simply disappeared. In this spellbinding true tale of lethal obsession, David Grann retraces the footsteps of Fawcett and his followers as he unravels one of the greatest mysteries of exploration."


I don't read a great deal of non-fiction, and though I've nothing against the form, there's a simple reason for my disinterest: fictional narratives, by the very act of their construction, are designed to satisfy - to put beginning before middle before end, character before crisis before conflict. Ultimately, what we crave from our entertainment, in whatever media, is story, and the stories non-fiction novels relate are often disjointed and disappointing; the world just doesn't work in the linear way we might like it to. Reading to broaden your understanding of a particular subject is one thing, but when I, for one, sit down with a book and a steaming cup of coffee, I read, first and foremost, for pleasure, and I have found only a little pleasure in dry recollections of real life, reiterations of events I would be as to Wiki while enjoying something more immediately involving - something fictional.

None of which is to say there isn't, from time to time, a non-fiction novel that handily overcomes my reservations. Last year's Leviathan, by Philip Hoare, was an extraordinary tale; as was Nathaniel Philbrick's fantastic In the Heart of the Sea and Longitude by Dava Sobel. Each of these books knitted together a spread of true events into a narrative more becoming of fiction than non, framing them in such a way as to give the illusion of linearity, of a coherent story with a throughline to take in those tropes we take for granted in imagined narratives. The Lost City of Z is the next novel in that vein, and it is surely the equal of any of the aforementioned. David Grann, noted columnist for the New Yorker, brings his wit and resources to bear on the disappearance of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, a gentleman explorer of the old school who with his son and his son's closest friend vanished somewhere in the rainforests of the Amazon searching for the mythical El Dorado: or, as the secretive old explorer puts it, the city of Z.

Grann assembles Fawcett's rise to fame and fall from grace with all the audacity of a true admirer. His tumultuous life - personal and professional (in those days, hiking through the rainforest was as fine a profession as any) - and presumed death make for a fantastic story in itself, but Grann goes above and beyond, supplementing his thorough research with details of an expedition he himself undertook, following in Fawcett's footsteps nearly a century later. Though Grann's personal experience of the Amazon as it exists in our age only comes into its own as the larger historical part of the novel draws to a close, the two distinct narratives intertwine wonderfully throughout The Lost City of Z. In a sense, the author's own adventure functions as both a continuation of Fawcett's pioneering exploration and as a contrast against which one might measure the tirelessly natural environment he so toiled to reveal with its ravished and woefully bedraggled state today.

Furthermore, Fawcett makes for a fascinating protagonist: a courageous daredevil for Queen and country caught amidst the changing tides of the times, determined to blaze a trail where no Englishman had gone before but socially awkward and financially impoverished compared to the other, all-mod-cons explorers of the age. When Fawcett swears off the Amazon for the duration of the first World War, he has already begun to fall behind; when he returns to the rainforest, he has been hopelessly outmoded, and his last expedition - that which ended in such tragedy and wrought the tragic end of many of those who set out to follow in his enigmatic footsteps - seems tantamount to suicide.

The Lost City of Z makes it easy to see why the unknowableness of the Amazon proved so alluring, then as now, lavishly, lovingly describing eras in which those regions unexplored by man were marked on the maps as "gaps were filled in with fantastical kingdoms and beasts, as if the make-believe, no matter how terrifying, were less frightening than the truly unknown." The notion of the unknown pervades Grann's narrative; it is that which there is simply no way for him to research to satiate his exponential obsession which drives him, finally, to walk a mile in Fawcett's shoes. And though it wouldn't do to spoil the particulars of Grann's bittersweet climactic discoveries, suffice it to say the New Yorker columnist, ensconced in a 4x4 with GPS and Google Maps a few milliseconds away, is - in spite of all his technological wizardly - in his physical endeavours not quite the equal of the inspirational gentleman explorer who vanished with nary a trace so long ago. Then again, in this day and age, so few of us would be... though The Lost City of Z makes of the Amazon's inalienable allure such a fine case as to be almost irresistible.


The Lost City of Z
by David Grann
July 2010, Pocket Books

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  1. From your post 'A virus of the mind':

    'If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?

    Not really, no. Generally, if a word is used properly you can understand the gist of it simply by studying its context. If I want to use it myself at a later date, I'll look it up. If it's not used properly, if it's just a fancy word for the sake of a fancy word, then no, I'm not going to dignify that sort of showiness with any more of my time or attention.'

    You should probably look up the word novel.

  2. And why would I do that, Colin?

    The wiki, for your peace of mind:

    Thanks so much for stopping by to police the internet!