Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Lost City of Z - David Grann

Early in the 20th Century, there was an Englishman named Percy Fawcett. He led several expeditions into the Amazon, initially just trying to better map the region and some of the boundaries between countries. But later, he was looking for the remains of an ancient civilization he was certain had existed there, and which he dubbed “Z”. In 1925, he, his son Jack, and Jack’s friend Raleigh went back into the jungle, and were never seen again.

For whatever reason, the particulars of this story have driven hundreds of people to search for Fawcett and Z over the decades, and it’s cost many their lives. Grann is a reporter who read about the story and grew intrigued enough to start trying to track it down. So there’s a parallel narrative here, as Grann moves back and forth between telling the story of Fawcett’s life, and his own work trying to determine where to start looking, and what happened on his own trip into the Amazon.

Grann goes into the arguments there have been over whether there could have been a major civilization in the Amazon, and how those have changed over the decades. He talks about other explorers of the region, and Fawcett’s suspicion and jealousy towards some of them. He covers Fawcett’s success and missteps, his tendency to be unforgiving of anyone not as driven and physically resistant to the challenges of the Amazon as him, and the shift in Fawcett’s perspective on Z. Fawcett seems to initially base his theory on at least some sound evidence, pottery shards he finds on plateaus, the accounts of early Europeans who describe an Amazon much more populous and developed than what he was encountering. Later, maybe because of what he saw while serving in World War I, it shifts to a Grail quest quality, where he’s just going to chase it as far as he can, no matter what.

This is seemingly a quality shared by several subsequent people who went looking, maybe even Grann to an extent. The difference being, he seems to realize it, and question that feeling. Grann's description of his search is interesting for how often the people he approaches for records, or Fawcett's correspondence, clearly regard him as just another nut chasing Fawcett. Then there are the people who've never heard of Fawcett, but when Grann describes what he's trying to do, can't understand it. Either way, people end up thinking he's a little odd.

‘In contrast, an Amazon explorer, immersed in a cauldron of heat, has his sense constantly assaulted. In place of ice there is rain, and everywhere an explorer steps some new danger lurks: a malarial mosquito, a spear, a snake, a spider, a piranha. The mind had to deal with the terror of constant siege.’

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