Saturday, September 5, 2009

Review: The Lost City of Z, by David Grann

I just listened to the audio version of The Lost City of Z,by David Grann, which is read by Mark Deakins. I really liked it. Because I am lame, I will provide the summary (not written by me) from Barnes and Noble:
Percy Harrison Fawcett (he went by "Colonel," although he was only a lieutenant colonel) was among the last of the gentleman explorers, the generalists who set out with machete and sketchbook to fill in the blank spots on the globe. Born in 1867, Fawcett, a wiry teetotalling Englishman who seemed immune to malaria, did this work better and faster than anyone believed was possible: in 1906–7 he mapped the border between Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, an inhospitable jungle river; in the seven years that followed he was all over the Amazon, sometimes following rivers, sometimes hacking his way overland, always with only a small party to help him. His surveying trips won him a medal from the Royal Geographical Society and a certain amount of fame (although never any money); but the expedition for which he is best known is the one he undertook in 1925, accompanied only by his son Jack and Raleigh Rimmell, Jack's boyhood friend. They were looking for a legendary city, which Fawcett referred to in his notes as "Z." None of them ever returned.

So, we have Victorian/Edwardian explorers combined with the burgeoning field of anthropology; the background for all of this is the sordid history of British imperialism and the Spanish conquistadors. Can anyone really see the Amazon at all given this history of oppression and conquest? Why do we persist in lionizing such imperialists/conquerors as heroes? This book starts to provide some interesting answers to such questions. Fawcett was, to be sure, a madman, but he was an intriguing one, and he actually developed, in his own way (the book shows), a method of approaching/negotiating with the indigenous peoples he encountered that was less horrible and disgusting than that of many of his peers. Does he get rewards for that? Probably not. It's worthwhile, however, to consider the psychology of the explorer, and the obsession/madness that leads him to act as he does.

I really enjoyed this book. The physical/mental privations of being an explorer are simply incredible, and it's fascinating and horrifying to see how these folks portrayed the Amazon and surrounding areas, even as it's equally annoying to see their attitudes. I suppose it is fitting that in the end, Fawcett was probably killed by the same people he was obsessed with--but very sad that he took along his son and his son's friend for the ride.

The author does a great job of paralleling his own obsession with the Amazon with Fawcett's, and I really enjoyed hearing about the emerging field of anthropology and the decline of the "amateur" explorers like Fawcett. Fawcett was a fascinating train wreck of an individual; he did, however, serve nobly in World War I and it obviously also took huge courage to do the exploration work he did. He was part huckster, part serious lover of the Amazon; I thought this book did a really nice job of sketching out the complexity of his character.

Mark Deakins is a good reader and I listened almost compulsively to this book--it really kept me engaged.

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