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Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

 Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

David Grann is the authorial equivalent of the method actor, living the lives of his subjects to the extent that he often becomes obsessed with them. But Granns newest biographical obsession is a dangerous chap to idolise: Percy Harrison Fawcett was an Indiana Jones-esque adventurer who made his name trekking about the Amazonian jungle in search of the lost city of El Dorado.

No one knows exactly what happened to Fawcett and his team, but many have died trying to find out. Not that this has dampened public interest in the Fawcett mystery. In fact, expeditions to'retrace the explorers footsteps became so commonplace at one point that the Brazilian government issued a degree banning [search parties] unless they received special permission.

There are myriad reasons why one might set out into the dangerous depths of the Amazon. In this vast area lurk all manner of unknowns. Un-contacted societies, possible ancient ruins and accompanying riches, and perhaps most appealing of all, an utterly alien landscape.

I envy my great-grandfather, really, says Fawcetts granddaughter when author Grann explains to her his interest in retracing Fawcetts footsteps.'In his day, you could still go marching off and discover some hidden part of the world. Now where can you go?

Its true, muses Grann, as he GoogleMaps his forthcoming expedition and heads off to a specialty camping and outdoors shop to get set up with all of the latest in fancy explorer gear. Where adventurous types like Fawcett signed up for survival courses at the Royal Geographical Society, begged for loans to support their exploratory habits, and quite literally risked their lives by heading off into those areas of the map marked with here there be dragons, todays explorers have access to wicking socks, GPS systems, satellite mapping, antibiotics and air-conditioned vehicles. Indeed, Grann sheepishly notes that the route that took Fawcett and his men a month to traverse, with several fatalities along the way, takes Grann and his tour guide two days.

The Lost City of Z is a tale of then and now: of the bright-eyed adventurers of generations ago seeking out the unknown and the unencountered compared with our adventurers of today, whose efforts feel somehow less grandiose in their absence of hardship. But despite the dissimilarities in outlookin addition to the differences in accessibility, there are also very different anthropological approaches employed now than there were some generations ago, when phrenology and enthographic ranking were the stuff du jourboth of these groups are fuelled by a lust for adventure and for discovery.

Its perhaps this argument that Grann is trying to make as he recounts his own research into Fawcett and his own travels into the Amazon whilst recreating in parallel the journey of Fawcett and his men. Though Granns experience is certainly the more cushy, armchair-based account, its abuzz with the same frenetic energy that seems to imbue Fawcett in his own explorations.

Grann feverishly describes the many predators of the Amazon: some of them terrifying in their largeness, like the anaconda and the big cats, but most of them even more fiendish for their ability to pack a very, very large bite into a small package. The sauba ants that could reduce the mens clothes and rucksacks to threads in a single night. The ticks that attached like leeches, and the red hairy chiggers that consumed human tissue. The berne flies thatdeposited larval eggs that hatched burrowed under the skin. The almost invisible biting flies called biums. And thats not to mention the plethora of parasites, diseases, and illnesses that lurk everywhere, and almost always, it seems, with utterly horrific effects. Its the stuff of a horror movie, and Grann spares no detail in his gleefully sordid depiction of everything that can go wrong in the humbling world of the Amazonand everything that did for Fawcett and his men.

But though the conditions crippled many of his fellow travellers, it seemed that the only bug that Fawcett, luckily a robust and healthy man, caught was the adventure one. Returning home to England, he wanted to forget atrocities, to put slavery, murder and horrible disease behind [him], only to realise a few months later that InexplicableamazinglyI knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me, and I wanted to see it again.

Fawcett was a wily man, a talented adventurer, and a meticulous note-taker, and achieved an astonishing amount during his travels, in part because he seemed immune to those ailments that cut down his rivals and companions, and in part because the desperation that comes with age made him push on even harder. If we had a few more men like him, I am sure there would not be a single corner of the unexplored regions, said a Bolivian emissary of Fawcett. He was also a man who did not subscribe entirely to the models of race and ethnicity that prevailed at the time, which allowed him a more descriptive approach in his interactions with the societies he encountered during his travels to find the lost city of Z, a place of untold riches and beautythe place he was searching for when he and his crew disappeared.

But though Fawcett was progressive for his time, he lacked the present anthropological methods we have today, as well as our differing conceptualisations of the type of imprint a society may leave behind. In this world where boundariesboth geographic and informationalare collapsed, Grann, however, has access to those very things that Fawcett did not. And while I wont ruin your own adventure through these horror- and pestilence-filled pages by giving the game away, the final reveal may set some hearts racing.

And yet, I couldnt help but feel that parallel threads of Fawcetts and Granns adventures didnt entirely work: where Fawcett is off battling off the wilderness in true McGuyverian style, Grann is checking his email and making Skype calls, and though I certainly dont begrudge Grann his mindfulness of his mortality, its impossible for these chapters not to feel a little dull in comparison. Surprisingly, its those chapters where Grann is preparing to go on his journey that are more interesting than those when hes actually off in the wild: perhaps because of the very anticipation that these chapters arouse in the reader. Still, the comparatively slow nature of these chapters and the sort of fade-into-nothingness of the ending aside, this ones a fascinating read that really does make you wonder what it is about the unknownand the desire to conquer itthat captivates us so.''

Rating: star Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grannstar Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grannstar Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grannhalfstar Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grannblankstar Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann (very good)

With thanks to Simon & Schuster UK for the review copy

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Other books by David Grann:

 Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

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