Friday, June 9, 2017

The Lost City of Z by David Grann

Provokes more curiosity than it satisfies
In his 2009 book, The Lost City of Z, journalist David Grann details the life and career of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer renowned a century ago for his daring journeys into the wilderness of the Amazon River region. Through the process of exploring and mapping uncharted regions of Brazil and Bolivia, Fawcett became obsessed with the possibility of finding the rumored lost city­ of an advanced Amazonian civilization­. In quest of this city—which he referred to as “Z”—Fawcett disappeared into the rain forest with his son and a family friend, never to return. Grann chronicles not only Fawcett’s life and adventures, but also the subsequent Fawcett followers who likewise ventured into uncharted territory hoping to uncover the fabled Z or perhaps even Fawcett himself. After interviewing James Lynch, who conducted one such expedition in 1996, Grann launches his own Fawcett-finding mission in hopes of unraveling the mystery of Z.

I liked this book overall, but given all the hype it got, I expected more. I have a healthy curiosity regarding the ancient civilizations of the Americas, so I consider myself predisposed towards this subject matter. When the book is a biography of Fawcett, it works well. Grann appears to have done copious research, and his account of Fawcett’s life provides a vivid glimpse into the heroics, chutzpah, and hubris of an Edwardian-era explorer. The contemporary vignettes that deal with Grann’s and Lynch’s forays into the Amazon, however, are less successful and only distract from the main narrative. The whole treasure hunt aspect of the book feels forced, like a Brazilian DaVinci Code, and ultimately yields little payoff. Grann goes out of his way to make it clear how inexperienced he is in jungle exploration. This seems calculated to make the reader identify with him, but instead it only raises the question of what qualifies Grann to relate this story and conduct this investigation into the existence of Z. In terms of journalistic quality, Grann’s travelogue of Brazil doesn’t measure up to the average National Geographic article.

As exciting as this story is, I can’t say I was ever really riveted by Grann’s writing, which is not nearly as compelling as that of Charles Mann, who tackled similar subject matter in his books 1491 and 1493. In fact, when all is said and done, the conclusions Grann draws at the end of this book are just a brief distillation of the ideas Mann put forward in 1491, a fascinating and comprehensive investigation into the state of American civilizations before Columbus. For those interested in what the inhabited Amazon might have been like before white men arrived, 1491 is a must-read. Mann’s book, though more scientific journalism than adventure narrative, was so exciting I never wanted it to end; with Grann’s, however, I eventually got to a point where I just wanted to be done with it. Through most of The Lost City of Z, I couldn’t help thinking that I would rather be reading Fawcett’s own writings rather than Grann’s take on them. In that sense, I consider this book valuable for turning me on to this episode in history and providing me with a bibliography for further reading.

Although I don’t consider this book a masterpiece, the bestseller lists could use more books like The Lost City of Z. It is definitely a worthy read for armchair archaeologists, and if it gets more people interested in the archaeology and history of the Americas and the political and environmental issues of the Amazon region, then Grann has performed a valuable service.
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