Stirring tales of faraway gold and civilizations untouched by the Western world can lure armchair travelers out of their seats, though parasitic fish and the prospect of being killed by unfriendly natives may put them right back down. David Grann’s The Lost City Of Z: ATale Of Deadly Obsession In The Amazon delves into territory so astonishing in its pursuit of a lost British explorer, it’s easy to see how the author himself was driven to head off into the jungle.
Colonel Percy Fawcett spent most of his non-military career mapping previously unknown regions for which he risked his life, but his crowning obsession was the search for advanced civilization in the Amazon. The inspiration for the fearless leader in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Fawcett was so confident about finding the city of Z—an amalgam of El Dorado legend and earlier explorers’ reports—that he took his 21-year-old son along, announcing gravely that if they couldn’t find Z, it would never be found. After five months of sending messages back through the jungle via runners, they lost contact and were never seen or heard from again. Grann, a self-described mild-mannered family man who is indifferent to the outdoors, is clearly captivated by the image of Fawcett as a compulsive adventurer who could be ruthless in completing his missions. (On one trek through Bolivia, he sent a gangrenous Arctic explorer off on a mule, lest he slow the party down any further; the man survived but was furious.)
Perhaps it’s because Fawcett would never have suffered a milquetoast like Grann to join his party that Grann felt the need to strap on his own ill-fitting hiking boots and tear off into the same country, still nearly untouched by civilization, where the colonel may have met his end. But Grann engages the idea that it may have been Fawcett’s Victorian sensibilities, not his inability to prepare adequately, that doomed his last expedition: While his views on race were somewhat more advanced than those of his fellows at the Royal Geographic Society, Fawcett’s belief in the “noble savage” may have pushed him to trust a friendly-looking tribe with bad intentions—nearly the fate of a 1996 exploratory party in the same region. With his thorough and colorful research into all aspects of the colonel’s life, not just his triumphal reports to his backers, Grann drags this nearly forgotten figure and his thirst for exploration into a well-deserved spotlight.