four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
David Grann
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0

A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

A-The Lost City of ZThis is the first book by David Grann, who has written for the New Yorker since 2003.

The Topic: The Lost City of Z is the story of Percy Harrison Fawcett, an indefatigable British adventurer who launched one of the last great expeditions of the 20th century but ultimately met a mysterious end while trying to find the golden city of El Dorado (or as he dubbed it, "Z.") But it is also the story of David Grann, the not-quite-so-formidable New Yorker writer who became nearly as obsessed with Fawcett as Fawcett was with Z—to the point of attempting to retrace Fawcett’s trail through the Amazon (a mission which, Grann asserts, has claimed at least 100 lives). Given Fawcett’s larger-than-life story, there is no shortage of action here, but Grann’s farcical retread of Fawcett’s tragedy also provides the story with comic relief and reflection.
Doubleday. 352 pages. $27.50. ISBN: 0385513534

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"When you were younger did you love reading novels of dangerous exploits in fabulous, far-off parts of this world or others—H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne and Lost World kind of stuff? If so, and if you want to recapture some of that blood-stirring reading experience, you need look no further than David Grann’s The Lost City of Z." Roger K. Miller

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The reader is taken just as close to Grann as the author is to Fawcett—tantalizingly close but never touching. His findings give us as complete a picture of the city of Z as we’re likely to get, even if Fawcett forever remains brilliantly and maddeningly nowhere to be seen." Karla Starr

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"In 2004, Grann stumbled upon Fawcett’s story and began researching what he called ‘the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century.’ And that wasn’t overselling the tale. Grann’s The Lost City of Z, his first book, turns that mystery into a smart biographical page-turner whose vivid narrative chronicles Fawcett’s extraordinary life and harrowing adventures." Don Oldenburg

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Although Fawcett’s story cuts through 100 years of complicated history, Grann follows its twists and turns admirably. Thoroughly researched, vividly told, this is a thrill ride from start to finish." Marie Arana

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The book is screwball … a hybrid in which the weak, fear-wracked reporter from the present age confronts the crazed iron men of yore, citizens of a country as grand and gone as the kingdom of the Incas. The result is a powerful narrative, stiff lipped and Victorian at the center, trippy at the edges, as if one of those stern men of Conrad had found himself trapped in a novel by García Márquez." Rich Cohen

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What makes Mr. Grann’s telling of the story so captivating is that he decides not simply to go off in search of yet more relics of our absent hero—but to go off himself in search of the city that Fawcett was looking for so heroically when he suddenly went AWOL. … Mr. Grann’s accounts of his travels in central Brazil—where he had a GPS device and satellite phone, ate freeze-dried chicken teriyaki, traveled in planes and SUVs … are somewhat less successful than his well-wrought and occasionally funny historical account of the Fawcett saga." Simon Winchester

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 3 of 5 Stars
"The final chapters of the meeting between the two Americans are anti-climactic as the scientist gives the writer an accounting of the ruins. Otherwise, Grann’s book is an interesting, if somewhat breathless, retelling of Fawcett’s life and the other ‘broken heroes on a last-ditch power drive’ who followed." Bob Hoover

Critical Summary

Ever since Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it has been difficult to think of a journey up a river into a jungle as anything but a journey to discover oneself. Similarly, reviewers seemed to find what they wanted in The Lost City of Z, even if some admitted that Grann’s adventures, at times tedious, were not nearly as perilous or as larger-than-life as Fawcett’s. Some critics read it as a boys’ adventure story, tripping over themselves to find adjectives fit for Fawcett’s derring-do. Others preferred to focus on Grann’s somewhat ironic attempt to seek Z himself. And finally, some critics had it both ways, since, by the end of the book, Grann claims to have actually found Z, or something like it, with only British writer Simon Winchester willing to cry "the horror!" at his American colleague’s lack of skepticism.

Reading Guide

POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!

The Reading Guide below is supplied by the book's publisher, and plot points may be revealed. We recommend that read the book before reading the guide.

1. Books about explorers, adventurers, and extreme risk-takers like Jon Krakauer’s Eiger Dreams and Into the Wild, Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance, Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, Sebastian Junger’s A Perfect Storm, and many others, have become extremely popular in recent years. What are the appeals of such books? What qualities does The Lost City of Z share with books of this kind? In what ways does it differ from them?

2. After time away from the jungle, Fawcett wrote: “Inexplicably—amazingly—I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me, and I wanted to see it again” [p. 116]. What drove Fawcett to plunge himself again and again into the dangers of the Amazon? What is the main force that drives him—obsession with finding the lost city, desire to prove himself against his competitors, a need to escape the confines of civilization, a spiritual quest?

3. In what ways is Fawcett a symbolic figure? What values does he embody? In what ways does he represent many of both the best and worst qualities of the British Empire?

4. Grann notes that some anthropologists and historians consider Fawcett’s view of the Indians enlightened for his era while others saw him as unable to transcend the prevailing racism of his own culture. How does he regard the Indians he encounters? How does he treat them?

5. How do Fawcett’s expeditions affect his wife Nina? How does she see her role in relation to him? In what ways does she succumb to his obsessions?

6. In what ways does The Lost City of Z challenge conventional views of the Amazon? What does it suggest about the current state of archeological research in the region?

7. What are some of the most fascinating and/or dreadful features of the Amazon jungle revealed in The Lost City of Z? How has the jungle been changed since Europeans first made contact with it?

8. What does The Lost City of Z reveal about the power of obsession? In what ways does Fawcett’s obsession draw others into its deadly gravitational pull?  

9. By what means does Grann maintain such a high level of suspense throughout the book? What does the interweaving of his own story—the story of his search for the truth about what happened to Fawcett and the story of his writing of the book itself—add to the total effect of The Lost City of Z?

10. After witnessing the mass carnage of World War I, Fawcett exclaims: “Civilization! Ye gods! To see what one has seen the word is an absurdity. It has been an insane explosion of the lowest human emotions” [p. 189]. In what ways does The Lost City of Z call into question conventional notions of civilization? What does it suggest about the supposed differences between advanced and primitive cultures?

11. What are Percy Harrison’s Fawcett’s most admirable qualities? What aspects of his character prove most troubling? Was James Murray right in accusing Fawcett of all but murdering him? [p. 139]. 

12. Near the end of the book, Grann writes about how biographers are often driven mad by the inability to fully comprehend their subjects. Of his own quest he says: “The finished story of Fawcett seemed to reside eternally beyond the horizon: a hidden metropolis of words and paragraphs, my own Z” [p. 303]. How well does Grann succeed in discovering and revealing the truth of Percy Fawcett?

13. Does Grann’s meeting with the anthropologist Michael Heckenberger in Kurikulo village confirm Fawcett’s belief in a lost ancient civilization? Is Fawcett’s search vindicated at last?

Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage. Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.