The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer's Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon by David Grann
|The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer's Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon by David Grann|
|Reviewer: John Lloyd|
|Summary: A brilliant biography of Colonel Fawcett and his adventures in search of lost cities in the Amazon – and of many others, including our author, in search of him when his last trek resulted in mystery. A definitive and eminently readable non-fiction drama.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 352||Date: February 2009|
|Publisher: Simon and Schuster Ltd|
For Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Fawcett there was more to the Amazonian jungle than El Dorado. His target was a treasure of a different nature – a lost city to be discovered because it was a city, not for any spurious material wealth it might hold. Could an entire civilisation have been founded in the inhospitable tracks of rain forest, and left remains he might find fame in locating? As this brilliant biography shows, Fawcett was the best man around to find it.
Made a Victorian officer by his military training, and early posting in Ceylon, made an adventurer by alleged treasure maps referring to lost hoards in that island's interior, and made a completely competent explorer by the burgeoning Royal Geographical Society, (if never made the actual colonel he called himself,) he found himself in South America, and discovered an iron constitution just right for ploughing through jungle and storming around on mission after mission. His personal goal became yet another of history's lost cities. One that was at the distant end of everything, one that had an inherent mystery, one that promised closure to his family's financial struggle. And one that, considering all that and his love for codes to hide his secrets from his rivals, he could only call Z.
It sounds like just another traveller in search of some great unattainable, but he really was the best at his trade – completing mapping missions in half the scheduled time. The regions he was exploring were famous for swallowing large-scale expeditions of hundreds of foot soldiers, defeating the pioneers who had clocked off many other global firsts, such as Antarctica. Yet in 1925 Fawcett was determined to travel light. A party of only himself, his older son, who really was travelling in his father's footsteps, and said son's life-long friend, set off, hiding the real course of their trek from everyone. And what happened after that, no-one seems to know.
This book sets its stall out on several grounds from the off – we have Fawcett to consider, and what he was going in search of. We also have all those who followed him, on the whole delayed not only by the false clues from their target but because everybody knew Fawcett was indestructible and bound to surface eventually. They not only had the secret of Z to unravel, but the hidden truth of that last trek – Fawcett had become an ultimate mysterious goal himself. And among those we can now include Grann, our author.
Grann's efforts in bringing all this to the page have yielded superlative results. His story covers so much – from the beginnings of the Royal Geographical Survey and what they were training their pioneers to think and research in the days before WWI, to the horrors of the rubber-tapping slave trade that caused Fawcett's first southern American trip, and have tempered all relations between the aboriginal tribes and their discoverers ever since.
His selected bibliography is huge, his research immaculate, and his delving into family archives and notebooks no-one else in his position has ever seen, have all resulted in the most definitive book. He still needed to work hard on what he did find, of course, and his journalistic background shows in the way he has crunched an awful lot of data into a fluid, energetic and brilliantly readable story.
It is an endless pleasure to be in the hands of a historical writer such as this, discovering paper trails unknown to us, and then living them out – which actually comes as a side-dish to the main course of the Fawcett biography. Still, the balance of the book is fine, and the way no stone is left unturned in picking up an understanding of the explorer's life and times is eminently recommendable. There is a page of medical horrors one shouldn't try to read after an evening meal, but I didn't know that when I did, so I'm giving you no further tips.
Fawcett, I am now sure, deserves acclaim for what he did do just as much as the last chapter of his life. You could call him the last of the Victorian age explorers, and the first of the media age, at the same time. His tale has inspired Tintin, Ian Fleming's brother – even an early Indiana Jones tie-in novel. I pick up non-fiction books in the hope of being entertained as well as leaving them with a feeling of being an expert on the subject. Grann's tight yet all-encompassing look at this life and its mystery ticks both boxes.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
For more exploration of that corner of the world we can recommend The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie, while A Corkscrew is Most Useful: The Travellers of Empire by Nicholas Murray also brilliantly looks back at the mindset of British explorers and travellers.
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