Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Lost City of Z

Before I picked up this book by David Grann I had never heard of Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett, who according to Grann was not really a full colonel but rather a lieutenant colonel who used the colonel title because he believed it helped his fund-raising efforts. This detail notwithstanding, Fawcett was an incredibly colorful character who vanished during an expedition into the Amazon in search of a magical city he simply dubbed Z.

An indomitable explorer and surveyor, Fawcett made numerous trips into the Amazon at the behest of Britain's Royal Geographical Society, always returning in record time and with unsurpassed results. He was an intrepid man with a strong constitution (a requisite trait for explorers at the time who were constantly exposed to infection and illness) and resolute conviction in what he was doing. He served with distinction during World War I, sired three children and was friends with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Over 100 people are estimated to have died trying to find out what happened to Fawcett on his last, ill-fated expedition. Grann, a writer for The New Yorker, decided to give it a go as well. The result is this book, based on extensive research and a trip into the Amazon. With his writing Grann puts you right in the middle of all of Fawcett's expeditions and the privations he and his parties routinely suffered. After reading this book I kept asking myself one question, "Why would anyone undertake such arduous agony?" The answer is complex and lies in Fawcett's driven nature and Grann gives very good glimpses into this larger than life man and his reasons for doing what he did.

On his last expedition Fawcett set out with only two other companions, one of his sons and his son's best friend. They subsequently disappeared, never to be heard from again. I can only imagine what Fawcett must have felt when the party's demise ultimately came and he knew he was responsible for the death of his son. Wikipedia notes that only recently in the uncharted jungles of Brazil such a city as the one that became Fawcett's obsessive quest has recently been found at the latitude, longitude coordinates (-8.843889°,-67.253056°).

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