I briefly discussed my fascination with lost civilizations when I reviewed David Grann’s The Lost City of Z (my review here). As much as I enjoyed that book, it still left a hollow feeling in the end. After all, David Grann’s own journey, which he recounts in alternate chapters of the book, was relatively uneventful and, though I’m sure it wasn’t actually easy, came off as just another reporter’s trip, the danger and mystery built up by the prose. My fascinating with such stories, though, hasn’t diminished, and I was anxious to read Jungleland (2013), a quest to find the lost or mythical White City in the jungles of Honduras.
Finding the fabled Ciudad Blanca has been the dream of many explorers for ages, from Cortés in the sixteenth century to today. Of course, many of these explorers, after they disappeared behind the curtains of the jungle, were never seen again. In 1939, however, a man did return. Theodore Morde came back, said he’d found the city, but soon after he died in mysterious circumstances, taking the secret location with him.
Christopher S. Stewart, a journalist for The Wall Street Journal, became obsessed with the story, finally heading into the jungle himself in 2009, leaving behind his wife and their young daughter: “I looked out at the wet, impassable hell of the jungle and heard my wife’s voice over and over again from the day I left hom. ‘What are you thinking? What are you really looking for? Why are you leaving?’”
Jungleland, thus, becomes another entry into the journalist made explorer set of books, which for me often feel very similar. Of course, the writing is polished and exciting, but in the end I look back and am not sure any of us really got anywhere.
Here are two similarities that, in and of themselves, are not enough to make an insightful book:
1) Structure: As in The Lost City of Z, Jungleland follows two timelines in alternating chapters: the journey of Theodore Morde in 1939 and the journey of Stewart in 2009. There’s nothing wrong with this approach — indeed, it makes a lot of sense — but since these books share so many other qualities, it would be nice to see someone break the form a bit.
2) The Journalist’s Quest: I understand and I like the idea of these journalists, as they age, seeking out some adventure not simply for the sake of a good story but for the sake of their own existence. Naturally, they are usually somewhat inept (except for Krakauer in Into Thin Air, a book that, for me, in about much more anyway and so does not really fit into this group I’m talking about), coming from the city and relative comfort. The journalist leaves because he is suffering from an existential crisis; the journalist find that isolation exacerbates this. I love a good exploration of this, but this one felt like it followed the numbers.
Naturally, a trip like this, whether it’s dangerous or not, is going to be a big deal in the life of the writer. Naturally, when that writer is following in someone else’s footsteps, that history is going to be interwoven into the story. These aspects didn’t do it for me, but is there anything else?
Fortunately, this book kept my attention by its exploration of the myths surrounding the White City and Theodore Morde. In other words, what pulled me through were the pieces that are unverifiable, that, even when Stewart returns home without much of anything to show for his trip, keep their mystery. I didn’t have much interest in Stewart’s own journey, and even the Morde story line, when it strays away from his exploration, felt stale, more like filler. There were also many tidbits of knowledge scattered about, such as a look at O’Henry’s stories about Trujillo, but for me it didn’t ever really add up to anything. Here the whole was less than the sum of its parts.