Review: The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

During the first year of The Literary Omnivore (oh, how weird is that to say?), I picked up a lot of recommendations from Paperback Row, a feature in The New York Times Book ReviewThe Lost City of Z is such a recommendation. Those recommendations tend to fall to the bottom of my reading list, picked up later, when I barely recall what the book is about (which is an adventure all on its own!). But I heard good things about The Lost City of Z and ended up finding a copy at a local thrift store over the summer—the one with the poorer book selection, which is a miracle all on its own. I took it to college with me, but never really got around to reading it until fantasy burnout struck after Narnia Week; then, I desperately needed some nonfiction to act as aloe for my brain, so I picked up The Lost City of Z. There’s something to be said for timing in a read; perhaps because it was just what I needed, it blew me away.

The Lost City of Z follows the astounding life of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer during the late Victorian era—as a member of the Royal Geographic Society, he explored the uncharted wilds of South America, particularly the Amazon, pitting his conservative, old-school methods against those of American rival Dr. Alexander Hamilton Price, a gentleman loaded with all the latest gadgets. (Ah, the age-old rivalry of tradition versus progress!) On its own, Fawcett’s life is interesting—he also served in World War I—but what made Fawcett’s life a legend was his disappearance in 1925, after he, his son, and his son’s best friend went into the Amazon in search of Fawcett’s hypothetical “Z”, an ancient Amazonian city on which the legend of El Dorado was supposedly built. Fawcett’s legendary status has lured hundreds of people into the Amazon, including author David Grann, who, in telling the story of Fawcett, tells the story of his own search for Fawcett and the lost city of Z.

As a dedicated fiction reader, I often lose patience with nonfiction that’s dry and plodding; this is completely avoided with The Lost City of Z. The pace is engrossing and quick, but never relentless, and Grann’s writing is appealing clear. As I picked this up right after Narnia Week, I was in the thick of the last days of class and finals—but I couldn’t put it down. While Grann makes the brilliant choice of opening with himself lost in the Amazon, searching for his guide and cursing his idea to go searching after what may have happened to Fawcett, he also wisely limits his intrusion onto Fawcett’s story, showing up every few chapters or so. Grann’s own journey reflects the journey of those swept up by the mystery of Fawcett’s discovery, as well as the evolution of exploration. In one chapter, Grann, preparing for his trip, walks into a outdoor gear store and finds that, as Earth runs out of unexplored places, physical exploration has taken an inward focus, with the rise of trips aimed at getting to know your inner self.

It’s a far cry from Fawcett’s world, where he was commissioned to map the boundary between Brazil and Bolivia. I could hardly wrap my head around a world where you simply don’t know where everything is. Grann brings turn-of-the-century England and South America to vivid life, recounting Fawcett’s life as we move on, inevitably, to the point of Fawcett’s disappearance. The indigenous peoples suffer both annihilation and patronization; when some evidence of a large jungle civilization cropped up, Victorian and turn-of-the-century explorers assumed that a white civilization must have come to South America—this explains the explorers’ fascination with the “white Indians”, who simply turned out to be albino natives. Grann makes no apologies for Fawcett’s views towards race, but also gives him credit for his, while patronizing, non-violent approach to contact with the natives and interest in a possible ancient Amazonian civilization—an interest that eventually consumed Fawcett and his entire family, including his wife, Nina, who, after his disappearance, retreated into herself and Fawcett’s legacy until she died.

Grann renders the difficulties of the Amazon in grim but never gory detail; Fawcett, in a letter, quotes a friend extolling the virtues of cannibalism over modern warfare, and I had to put down my lunch to read several portions about maggot-infested flesh and how you got them out. He renders Fawcett brilliantly through his own words, collected by his son (the one that didn’t vanish with him, obviously) in a book called Exploration Fawcett; you really get a feel for such a charismatic, obsessive, and, at the end, paranoid figure. I find that some nonfiction, depending on the topic, tends to wander about towards the end, where a proper climax should be, but Grann actually manages to pull a twist, which I won’t spoil you for. But rest assured, there’s a magnificent closure to both Grann’s journey and, perhaps, Fawcett’s. I was thoroughly impressed by The Lost City of Z; there’s not a thing I would change about it.

Bottom line: David Grann proves that nonfiction needn’t be dry, plodding, and without a proper climax in The Lost City of Z, a fantastic biography of the lost explorer Percy Fawcett that makes every element of his adventurous life stand out, from Victorian views on race to the horrors of the Amazon jungle, and bring magnificent closure to not only the journey of the author, but perhaps the journey of Fawcett himself. I loved every minute of it.

I bought this book from a local thrift store.

11 thoughts on “Review: The Lost City of Z

  1. This one has been on my wish list for a long time now, but I never actually buy it. I clearly need to rectify that….after April 1st since I am determined to not buy until then.

  2. I liked this one a lot too. Grann’s a great writer and he doesn’t gets boring or dry. I never felt that I was being lectured to and I think that comes from his being a journalist. It’s more about telling the story rather than forcing facts on you. The maggot part got me too while I was eating lunch. I put my lunch down but not the book. 🙂

  3. I have heard about this one but haven’t read it because it’s nonfiction, and I have the same reservations about nonfiction that you do. I’m really glad to hear it’s not dry at all, because it does sound like a fascinating book.

  4. Ah, you have renewed my interest in this book, which I had noted down some time before as a to-read but my to-read list is so long, the mass becomes somewhat indistinguishable at times. Anyway, the part about the maggot-infested flesh reminds me of my experience reading The Cloud Garden, a non-fiction book about two British guys who are taken hostage in the Darien Gap. One of them gets a parasite in his leg and the description of this discovery and its removal are not for the squeamish. Ew. Anyway, this sounds like a great non-fiction read!

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