Wednesday, November 23, 2011

David Grann, The Lost City of Z

I just finished listening to this interesting little book, and I recommend it highly. David Grann is a staff writer with the New Yorker, and he put a great deal of effort into researching and writing this layered tale of exploration and madness. The Lost City of Z: a Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon retells the famous story of Percy Harrison Fawcett, an English explorer who vanished in the Amazon in 1925. At the time this was one of the most heavily covered news stories in the world, and dozens of expeditions to find Fawcett and his men were mounted by everyone from experienced explorers to failed B movie actors. None of them succeeded, and several of the would-be rescuers also failed to return. The tale of Z and Fawcett's quest to find it is as alluring today as it was in 1925.

I have noticed that in grading student papers it is sometimes necessary to ignore the introductory paragraph. Students whose initial sentences are an unreadable muck of platitudes, with bad grammar and worse choice of words, sometimes settle down and do reasonably well once they get into the meat of their papers. So it is with this book; the introduction was such a mass of clichés that I almost turned off the cd, but I am glad that I kept going. Once the attempt at an alluring hook is past, Grann's writing is not bad, and the story is wonderful. Perhaps he fell into cliché because the story is in so many ways archetypical: the hero, obsessed by a glowing vision of a golden city, embarks on a quest that some think is mad, and then vanishes, leaving a mystery still not solved.

Fawcett was a British artillery officer who grew bored with garrison life and enrolled in the Royal Geographical Society's course on how to be an explorer. After learning map-making, celestial navigation, survival skills, and the like, he embarked on a career of filling the blank spots on the map of South America. His first assignment was to map the border between Bolivia and Brazil. Aided by an amazing constitution that kept him healthy amidst the world's most disease-ridden jungles, he carried out several more expeditions over the years from 1906 to 1914. He learned bits of some Indian languages and made it his policy to work in small, lightly armed teams, always approaching Indians peacefully. From his Indian friends Fawcett heard stories that he interpreted as memories of a long-lost Indian civilization, centered on a great city that he called Z. He also recognized signs of ancient cultures in regions that were by 1900 nearly uninhabited: mounds covered with pottery, rock paintings, ancient roads.

In Grann's version of the tale, Fawcett was sane and scientific about Z in this early period. But then came World War I, and Fawcett, still an artillery officer, reported for duty on the Western Front. He served through the whole war, including the entire Battle of the Somme. Weighed down by the horrors he witnessed, he turned ever more against western "civilization" and longed to return to the jungle. Grann detects a shift in Fawcett's writings about Z during the war, from an archaeological problem to a quest for a sort of salvation. Fawcett grew increasingly interested in spiritualism -- according to some reports, he used a ouija board to pick artillery targets -- and he visited mediums who told him about Z in its days of glory. He published an article in a spiritual journal in which he described his search for Z as a spiritual quest for enlightenment. Many of his papers from this period were later destroyed by one of his sons, who found them embarrassing.

After the war Fawcett tried immediately to get back to the Amazon, but the Royal Geographical Society was broke and he could not get funding. He scraped together the money for a two-man expedition, which had to be aborted when his companion fell ill. Then, with the help of an American promoter, he raised funds from newspapers on the condition that he file regular stories about his progress. (I thought this was a great sign of how the world changed in the twentieth century, as aristocracy yielded to the power of mass media.) On this final trip he took along with him his eldest son, Jack, and Jack's best friend. They all disappeared into the Xingu region of Brazil and were never heard from again.

Grann, who had never even been camping before, conceived a sort of mad adventure of his own, following in Fawcett's footsteps. In the book chapters on Fawcett's progress alternate with chapters on Grann's bumbling quest. Some parts of Grann's journey are fascinating, for example when he meets members of a Brazilian religious cult that believes Fawcett passed through a portal into another dimension, where the pure live forever. Eventually he ends up among the Indians in the region where Fawcett disappeared, and the Indians confirm, more or less, that Fawcett was killed by hostile tribesmen.

While in this region, Grann, who by now has come to think that Fawcett was insane and his quest for a Z a folly, meets archaeologist Michael Heckenberger. Heckenberger is one of the leaders of the new school of Amazonian archaeology that has documented evidence of large settlements and high populations through out the region. He shows Grann the boundary ditch of a large settlement just a mile from the very village he was staying in, and explains that the region was crowded with settlements in the 800 to 1600 AD period.

To Grann this new evidence shows that Fawcett was not crazy after all, but I wonder. Certainly the Spanish accounts of large Indian populations in the 16th century, on which Fawcett relied, have been largely confirmed. But was there in the Amazon anything we would want to call a "civilization", let along a great city gleaming with gold? My interpretation is that the more advanced Amazon tribes were something like the Mississippian Indians of the same period in North America. They built impressive earthworks, including large collections of mounds in their ceremonial centers, traded across large distances, and created marvelous works of art. Yet none of their cities endured, and most of the people lived in a basic neolithic way, still depending on hunting and gathering for much of their food. They built no gleaming cities.

So while Fawcett was onto something, he was not onto the right thing. I think Grann is right that his quest for Z took on tones of spiritualism and possibly madness. The enormous appeal of Z and Fawcett's quest for it, the way the story fits into our minds like a key in a lock, is to me the most fascinating thing of all. The story is in fact so old and haggard that Fawcett's own older brother had written a novel, back in 1894, about a lost city in the jungle; in the novel, everyone who searches for the city disappears. Fawcett made up a story and cast himself as the central character, a story about a man who found a lost city in the jungle and thereby won fame, fortune, and happiness. He believed in it so powerfully that he sacrificed his own life, and those of his son and another young man, on the altar of his vision. Life, he eventually discovered, is rather different from the stories we like to tell ourselves about it.

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