Book review: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

In his the outstanding, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, David Grann tells the story of Percy Fawcett — “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.”

Grann does a excellent job of weaving together Fawcett’s tale with his own tale of trying to discover what happened to the explorer. One part travelogue, one part historical adventure and one part mystery, The Lost City of Z does a remarkable job of painting a picture of rugged exploration and travel in centuries past.

It’s easy to forget in this day and age of ubiquitous connections to the world back home that not too long ago setting off for a destination like the Amazon was, as often as not, akin to suicide.

Indeed, if The Lost City of Z has a downside it’s that it will likely put a damper on your enthusiasm for jungle exploration. Between worms, mosquitoes, gnats, flies and all manner of other insects ravenously feasting on human flesh, along with the continual threat of starvation, hostile tribes and other dangers that Fawcett faced — and which, to a certain extent, still exist — my desire to trek in the Amazon waned considerably while I read the book (fear not, it’ll be back).

Grann, who was recently featured in Rolf’s Travel Writers interview series, brings together two stories in this book. The first is that of Fawcett and his quest to find the fabled lost city of El Dorado, but at the same time there’s also Grann’s own quest to find out what happened to Fawcett and his son (who accompanied his father on that final trip).

The result is a fascinating look at the then and now contrasts and how exploration has morphed into travel. As Grann wryly notes, “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 5 feet 9 inches tall and am nearly 40 years old, with a blossoming waistline and thinning black hair.”

Which isn’t to say that the days of the hardy explorer are completely gone — in the Amazon anyway. Grann’s own journey shows how quickly travel can turn right back to exploration and Grann winds up facing situations not all that different than those Fawcett faced almost a century ago.

Yet Grann treks into some remote areas of the Amazon and manages to survive, recounting the details with a mixture of awe and the sort of deadpan humor that would make fellow New Yorker Woody Allen proud.

In perhaps the only depressing moment of the book, which Grann doesn’t dwell on but it jumps out nonetheless, Grann retraces Fawcett’s steps only to find the the jungle is long gone from areas where it once nearly impenetrable — a sobering reminder of how fast the Amazon basin is disappearing.

If you’re looking for a good, adventurous read to tide you through the remaining months of winter, or something to bring along on your next long trip, The Lost City of Z is well worth it. And don’t forget to check out the interview with Grann for some insights on travel writing and more.

Posted by | Comments (2)  | March 4, 2009
Category: Travel Writing

2 Responses to “Book review: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

  1. » Has Google Earth found El Dorado? :: Vagablogging :: Rolf Potts Vagabonding Blog Says:

    […] Grann, author of the “Lost City of Z” (about Colonel Percy Fawcett’s expeditions in search of the ancient city), said in The Sunday […]

  2. Colonel Percy Fawcett Says:

    Its a good read and well worth the cover price.
    If you liked this book then search out a copy of Exploration Fawcett, the colonel’s own account of his Amazon Expeditions before he went missing in 1925.
    A new book out shortly, Amazon Adventure (Working Title) is also about Colonel Fawcett, but differs from Grann’s as its a novel that continues Fawcett’s journey to the Lost City of Z.
    More info here: