I lived in the Brazilian Amazon for two years. I spent a lot of that time in the city of Belém, which is at the mouth of the Amazon river, just where it shoots for miles and miles into the Atlantic Ocean, and in the city of Santarém, which is much deeper in the jungle, where the Amazon and the Tapajós Rivers meet (it’s incredible because the Amazon is brown and the Tapajós is blue, but they don’t mix right away — here is a photo). I didn’t go hacking into any jungles, but I certainly was surrounded. It was beautiful, particularly since I always knew I was fairly safe as I didn’t wander too far from civilization. Still, the imagination wanders, and there are plenty of stories to help it. I heard many stories of lost people and lost cities while in Brazil. I have always been interested in old civilizations that are now basically lost, even if they were never that large (like the ones in Southern Utah that I spoke briefly about in my review of Butcher’s Crossing). There’s something about seeing land one which people once worked their lives away, and now with no trace. Add an air of intrigue and myth to that, and that’s how I felt often in the Brazilian jungle.
So, when David Grann, one of my favorite New Yorker writers, expanded into a book one of his articles about his journey into the Amazon jungle to search for clues to the fate of Percy Fawcett, the classic explorer who went searching for the lost city of Z with his son in 1925, never to be heard from again, I knew I had to read it. It took me a while to get my hands on a copy, but it took me only two days to get through it. Incidentally, it seems that the story of Percy Fawcett is the inspiration behind the final part (in the original version) of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust — and I really liked that ending.
The book begins with a prologue that I felt to be misleading, for reasons I’ll elaborate later. In this short introduction, Grann, somewhat baffled about the forces (curiosity, inspiration) that compelled him to leave the comforts of his home and family in Brooklyn, finds himself in the Brazilian jungle, a place where “men die from the most innocuous-seeming oversight — a torn net, a boot that was too tight.”
Let me be clear: I am not an explorer or an adventurer. I don’t climb mountains or hunt. I don’t even like to camp. I stand less than five feet nine inches tall and am nearly forty years old, with a blossoming waistline and thinning black hair. I suffer from keratoconus — a degenerative eye condition that makes it hard for me to see at night. I have a terrible sense of direction and tend to forget where I am on the subway and miss my stop in Brooklyn. I like newspapers, take-out food, sports highlights (recorded on TiVo), and the air-conditioning on high. Given a choice each day between climbing the two flights of stairs to my apartment and riding the elevator, I invariably take the elevator.
Despite his own inexperience as well as his propensity to avoid any such discomforts, Grann is too intrigued by the story of Fawcett, who “had determined that an ancient, highly cultured people still existed in the Brazilian Amazon and that their civilization was so old and sophisticated it would forever alter the Western view of the Americas.” In the years leading to his quest, Fawcett became increasingly paranoid that someone else would make the discovery before him, so most of his preparations were made in secret. Furthermore, he feared that if he told details of his route through the jungle and became lost, many others would lose their lives trying to find him. Consequently, when he didn’t appear in 1926, 1927, or 1928, no one really even knew where to start. “He had vowed to make ‘the great discovery of the century’ — instead, he had given birth to ‘the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.’” Notwithstanding his secrecy, many tried to find him, and many died or were lost forever.
Grann came across the story of Percey Fawcett when he we doing research for his story on the mysterious death of a Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes expert (the fascinating article was published in The New Yorker here; subscription required). Conan Doyle admired Fawcett, and Fawcett’s stories of the Brazilian jungle were an inspiration to Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. As Grann followed his curiosity, he learned about Z, “a sophisticated civilization with monumental architecture could have existed in the Amazon.”
The thought of an ancient civilization flourishing in the Amazon has been taken as a myth for years. Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution called the region “‘counterfeit paradise,’ a place that, for all its fauna and flora, is inimical to human life.”
After giving us some of the details of the region, Grann dives into the history of Fawcett. An important figure in the Geographical Society, he made several trip to the Amazon in the early twentieth century in order to map out the region. Miraculously, though he witnessed many casualties, Fawcett himself never even got really sick. These stories of the expedition take up quite a bit of the book, and that is no bad thing. I was fascinated by the discoveries he made, by the methods he employed, by the myth he created of himself that he began to believe. Grann does a great job digging into some details while keeping everything exciting and immediate. Much of this is because we know that after World War I, Fawcett is going to try to find the civilization he’s been hearing about here and there on his expeditions, but he will never come back.
I loved the book. It hit me in all the right places, as Grann’s articles often do. There’s an element of mystery and factfinding (like when Grann visits the home of one of Fawcett’s descendants and finds some clues about Fawcett’s real route). There are elements of myth (and part of me always likes where a good myth takes me). And there’s the beautiful, deadly region that some men feel they are called on to explore. I was really only disappointed that Grann didn’t explore his own experience a bit more, as his prologue promised to do. We are left with the impression (probably correctly) that Grann’s trip and its subsequent discovery weren’t really terribly difficult. A few moments of disorientation, a time or two when it looked like something dangerous my be on its way, but for the most part a fairly easy trip into the jungle. After reading the deeply self-reflecting Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer (loved them too), and being very fulfilled by not just the story but also by Krakauer’s own internal and external struggles, I was hoping for a bit of that here. For the most part, though, Grann stays out of the story, though he looks like he’s about to jump in at any time. Of course, the reportage on Fawcett’s life and explorations is sufficient for the excitement a book like this is supposed to produce.