Chasing a dream in the Amazon

Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett disappeared in the Amazon. Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett disappeared in the Amazon. (R. de Montet-Guerin/Random House via Bloomberg News)
By Chuck Leddy
March 11, 2009
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The 16th-century Spanish conquistadors hunted for a legendary lost Amazon city called El Dorado, and the search for its riches cost perhaps thousands of lives over time. As writer David Grann makes abundantly clear in this fascinating, epic story of exploration and obsession, the lethal attraction of the Amazon mystery remains strong.

The focus of Grann's impressively researched and skillfully crafted narrative is a British explorer named Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who walked into the Amazon rain forest in 1925 in search of the civilization he referred to as Z. Fawcett never returned. His mysterious disappearance soon became a source of speculation and rescue expeditions that resulted in even more deaths but little information about Fawcett's fate.

Grann, a New Yorker staff writer, describes Fawcett as "the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose." Finding the fate of legendary Fawcett and his lost city of Z becomes Grann's quest too, and a dangerous one.

In "The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon," Grann has intricately constructed his narrative using interweaving strains. First, the author brilliantly re-creates Fawcett's perilous Amazon expeditions, especially what is known of his ill-fated 1925 journey. As Fawcett and his team confront deadly insects, exotic jungle predators, tropical diseases, and hostile Indians, readers come to understand that "the Amazon was, in short, a death trap." Second, Grann describes his own obsessive global search for evidence of Fawcett's life and disappearance. The author explores the archives of London's Royal Geographical Society, as well as the deep jungles of Brazil.

Grann hires a guide and, using the evidence he's discovered, retraces Fawcett's last steps through the Amazon, as best he can. As the author learns, the Amazon has been radically transformed over the last eight decades by logging and agriculture. As Grann's guide tells him, "Only the Indians respect the forest. The white people cut it all down." Yet Grann finds, and interviews, an old Indian woman who says she remembers Fawcett passing through. Grann also meets Vajuvi, the chief of the tribe that allegedly killed Fawcett. Vajuvi tells Grann: "People always say [we] killed the Englishmen. But we did not. We tried to save them."

The more Grann searches for Fawcett, whether by poring over historical documents or slashing through the inhospitable jungle, the clearer it becomes that Fawcett's disappearance will remain a mystery. As the number of dead adventurers continued rising in the post-1925 search for Fawcett, notes Grann, "the Brazilian government . . . issued a decree banning" these search expeditions as futile and fatal.

Even Grann, after years of obsession, comes to admit the impossibility of finding Fawcett and his city. "The finished story of Fawcett," an exhausted Grann writes, "seemed to reside eternally beyond the horizon." Yet Grann makes one more attempt before book's end, traveling to a remote Amazon village near where Fawcett was last spotted alive. Here, he interviews an American archeologist named Michael Heckenberger who lives among the Indians and studies their traditions.

In the book's final pages, Heckenberger reveals that he's discovered "twenty pre-Columbian settlements . . . [that] were about two to three miles apart and were connected by roads." Before Europeans brought disease and genocide to the Amazon, Heckenberger believes, the region sustained "a prosperous, glorious civilization." And so Grann's long search ends with the possibility that Fawcett was right all along, that the lost city was more than just a dream. Grann's tale is a gripping journey into the unknown that, if less harrowing than Fawcett's, was nonetheless worth making.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.

THE LOST CITY OF Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

By David Grann

Doubleday, 352 pp., $27.50

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