Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Lost City of Z

A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

Percy Fawcett was an English explorer who became obsessed with finding El Dorado in the Amazon forest. He led several expeditions in search of it, each time emerging virtually unscathed while those around him sickened and died, their minds deranged, their bodies oozing pus and maggots. Piranhas, vampire bats, malaria, xenophobic tribes armed with 6-foot poisonous arrows -- these were just a few of the dangers involved.

Thanks to an iron constitution, ruthless determination, and suicidal bravery, Fawcett became one of the most famous explorers of the early 20th century. He seemed absolutely invincible -- until 1925 when he shocked the world by vanishing without a trace. Party after party set out in search of him, but many of them also disappeared, which only deepened the mystery. As time wore on, cults sprang up worshipping Fawcett.

More recently New Yorker author David Grann joined the ranks of the obsessed and set off to solve the mystery. The result is this compulsively readable book, which cleverly (and somewhat disingenuously) dovetails Grann's own journey with the final Fawcett expedition.

At the end he delivers a surprising conclusion. Fawcett wasn't so crazy after all. Recent findings by anthropologists such as Anna Roosevelt and Michael Hecklenberger seem to indicate that advanced civilizations did exist in the Amazon. One site has been dubbed the "Stonehenge of the Amazon."

Literary Echoes

The Lost World - Conan Doyle knew Fawcett and is believed to have used him as a model for one of the characters.

Indiana Jones and the Seven Veils - Who better to find Fawcett than Indy?

A Handful of Dust - Fawcett's fate likely inspired the ending of this Evelyn Waugh novel.

Gringos - An end-of-the-world cult called the Magical Nucleus reminded me of a similar cult in this Charles Portis novel set in the Yucatan.

The Lost City of Zzz...

Brad Pitt is not starring in the upcoming movie.

What sounds better? The lost city of Zee (Grann), or the lost city of Zed (Fawcett)?

There are interesting similarities between the lost expeditions of Fawcett and Franklin.

David Grann's website
Simon & Schuster book trailer