While The Lost City of Z wasn't quite the rollicking adventure I anticipated, it was a fascinating read - and one that all but managed to put an end to my dreams of being the next Indiana Jones. Okay, maybe that dream will never really die, but David Gann certainly has given me pause for thought with his Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon.
On the surface, what we seem to have here are two narratives, embedded and entwined within one another. The primary narrative is that of Percy Fawcett's awe-inspiring career, one that culminated in one final (and deadly) search for lost city of Z, deep within the Amazon. The second is that of the author's own quest to retrace Fawcett's trail, to discover his fate, and to discover the existence of Z. Beneath the surface, however, what we really have is a treatise on anthropology, biology, botany, geography, and history. Sometimes truth truly is stronger than fiction, and Gann paints a picture that is as terrifying as it is fascinating.
Looking back from the 21st century, it's hard to image a time when so much of the world was unknown and unmapped. It's almost impossible to picture a time - especially one so recent - without Google Earth, GPS navigation, satellite phones, airplanes, and all of the other technological advances that have made our world so much smaller. Gann's descent into the Amazon is daunting enough on its own, but to imagine doing that on foot, with only the clothes on your back, being out of touch for months or even years at a time, is almost overwhelming.
Gann presents an interesting exploration of human history, the possibility of large-scale settlements in the Amazon, and the evolution of scientific attitudes towards that possibility. He shows us just how quickly people and places can be swallowed by the jungle, and just how different the reality of ancient civilizations may be from the stone temples and pyramids we're used to. Gann simultaneously destroys the myth of the noble savage, while creating a new reality of a people who may have evolved differently, but who are just as sophisticated, albeit in their own way. Ultimately, it's left to the reader's judgement (and imagination) as to whether he ever discovers Fawcett's Z, but that's part of the tale's allure.
What struck me most about the book, however, is that no matter how many old-time adventure serials you see, or pulp adventure novels you read, you simply cannot imagine the horrors of the Amazon. Gann recounts all the usual suspects - the piranha, the alligators, the bats, and the snakes - but he also introduces us to bizarre and terrifying creatures the likes of which you don't even want to imagine. The bugs alone are overwhelming, especially the ones that burrow deep within your flesh to hatch years later, but nothing compares to the spiny fish that swims inside human orifices below the belt, requiring men to be castrated in the jungle to save their lives.
Overall, it's a slow read, one that meanders through time, space, and subject. It requires a bit of persistence to stick with it, especially during the long stretches between the story of Gann's own journey, but the discoveries that await are worth waiting for. Fortunately Gann shies away from making any grand declarations as to Fawcett's fate, presenting us instead with evidence, testimonies, and his own conclusions. Besides that, it's probably the most fascinating history lesson you'll ever sit through.