review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann


This review does contain mild spoilers. It’s difficult to discuss this book without them. Read at your own risk, you guys.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – David Grann should write ALL THE BOOKS ALL THE TIME.

Grann is the ultimate in detectives, tracing the path of one Percy Harrison Fawcett (PHF to friends and family), who, along with his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh, disappeared into Amazonia while searching for the fabled city of El Dorado (or as Fawcett called it, simply, “Z”). Fawcett and his team vanished in 1925, so it’s unlikely that any traces of them will ever be found, but what about Z? Grann sets out on a quest to follow Fawcett’s footsteps, and that’s where our journey begins.

Fawcett was, by all accounts, a fascinating, complicated and driven individual, with a singular ability to survive in the Amazon rainforest, as well as to communicate with the Indian tribes that so threatened exploration at the time. One of Fawcett’s many flaws was his inability to understand that others may not have his stamina (he called one member of his team who drowned in a river a “rotter, typical waster” and was appalled that another wanted to stop because their body was infected by maggots… the nerve!) but the end result normally worked in his favour. His explorations came in under time and under budget, and he was a hero of the Royal Geographic Society.

Grann speaks with Fawcett’s existing relatives, reads through his journals and other documents, and manages to find out what others hadn’t. .

Armed with knowledge, Grann leaves for Amazonia (his wife tells him, “don’t be stupid”), enlisting the help of a guide and entering into “the green hell” that claimed Fawcett, his son, and his son’s closest friend.

The descriptions of the Amazon are really quite amazing – I felt like I was there, tasting my own blood and sweat in my mouth, surrounded by a black cloud of insects, fighting through thick vines, listening to the howl of monkeys, watching for the glittering eyes of the cobra. The threats of Amazonia are so real and varied that it seems impossible to survive there (and yet so many have and do) – most terrifying is the threat of the vampire fish, which latches onto your anus, vagina or penis with its teeth and feeds off your blood. It can only be extracted through surgery and many times, this involves castration. GREAT! Can’t wait to visit!

Grann has a lively, entertaining and often amusing way of recounting these horrors, but of course, there are other moments when it becomes all too real – the donkeys collapsing due to the weight of the maggots in their skin, the animals felled by blood-letting bats, jaguars, snakes. Human beings riddled with rot and disease, foreign creatures inside of them. And yet, Fawcett soldiered on, despite it all.

By the end of the book, I think it’s fairly obvious what happened to Fawcett – SPOILER….

{unfortunately, I think Fawcett believed in his own hype, and inadvertently killed his son and Raleigh by entering into “enemy territory” after being repeatedly warned by others not to. He was so confident that he could communicate with any tribe, that he didn’t believe it when he was told not to go “that way”. Or maybe he did believe it, and he cared more about Z than returning alive. I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure, but I do think the evidence supports that Fawcett, Jack and Raleigh were slaughtered by an Indian tribe when they entered their territory, and goodness knows what happened to their remains – from the accounts in this book, certain tribes had a lot of interesting uses for those – so I don’t think they would be easily found. It’s heartbreaking, in the end, to realize that Fawcett was within a breath of his “Z” and of ensuring his future – and yet, he wandered on, unaware and into “hell”, taking two young men with him. Most poignant are Raleigh’s letters home, in which he dreamed of marrying and settling down, of finally being done with such a foolish quest. Raleigh regretted going almost immediately and Jack and Fawcett had no time for regrets – and no sympathy for Raleigh’s obvious wish to return to civilization. And of course, poor Jack – who believed so staunchly that he would return – and Fawcett, saying to Nina, his beloved wife, “you need have no fear of failure.” Nina ultimately died alone, “demented” and penniless (always believing that someday they might walk through the door – an event she said, “would not surprise her”, and his surviving children left to cope with the devastation of never knowing. Brian Fawcett even went on an expedition to find his brother – he never gave up hope that Jack was alive. It’s just so sad.}

Grann paints a startlingly colorful, engrossing and multi-faceted picture of Fawcett’s life, expeditions and his disappearance. His descriptions of the Amazon, the rivers, the bugs (oh, THE BUGS), the miseries, the triumphs and how – in the end – Fawcett was driven back to that green hell because he craved it. Just that simple. It was, to him, what being alive meant. Hacking through forests with machetes, living off the land, being attacked at every angle by predators more vast than the human mind can comprehend – to Fawcett, it was exhiliriating, and when at home, enjoying creature comforts, he couldn’t rest or relax. He felt “suffocated, in a cage”. He needed the chase, the quest – and in the end, that destroyed him.


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