Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Lost City of Z

Lost cities used to be the stock in trade of fanciful maps of parts of the world that had never been explored. From the "Seven Cities of Gold" that lured the Conquisatdors, to "Agartha," a city at the center of the earth (reached in some versions via Symmes's Hole), to Seron, a city supposed to have been founded by Noah the moment he stepped out of the Ark, these imaginary metropoli dotted the maps of the ancient and early modern world. As the modern era of exploration dawned, and previously unknown cities were discovered amidst the jungles of Cambodia (Angkor Wat, 1860) and Belize (Xunantunich, 1895), the thought that perhaps some of the cities of legend and rumor actually did exist became a compelling one. And perhaps no one was more drawn to them than Percy Fawcett, a British geographer-adventurer whos idée fixe was to discover the city he named "Z," which he believed might be the famed "El Dorado," a lure for explorers since the time of Sir Walter Raleigh.

Which brings us to the present volume. David Grann is -- as he points out himself -- no explorer. Unlike Fawcett, whom he describes as ribbed with rippling muscles, he's more the "98-pound-weakling" type, a balding homebody whose initial interest is just a professional one as a journalist. But, as with the Franklin story, the Fawcett mystery has a viral way of infecting its hosts, producing a state of mind which can only be treated (though perhaps never cured) by going to the very places where Fawcett was last seen.

A fair amount of the early chapters, alas, are mere fluff. As exciting as it is to do research in primary-source archives, sitting at a desk with papers for hours doesn't necessarily make for page-turning reading. Grann also takes the approach -- a mistaken one, I feel -- of giving us Fawcett's entire career in semi-fictional flashbacks in which what's missing in the historical record is imagined and reconstructed. None of it amounts to much until we draw near to Fawcett's final, fatal expedition; this is where the real drama begins. That Fawcett would take his eldest son, as well as that son's closest friend, speaks to a rather unusual set of criteria -- the theory that strong emotional bonds would support and magnify the relatively limited experience of the expedition's younger members.

Enough is known to say that the bond between Fawcett's son Jack and his best friend Raleigh Rimmell, was the first to fray. Young Raleigh was swept up in the hullabaloo and hype that smoothed the months leading up to the expedition -- but once actually embarked upon it, he soon became sullen and overcome by lassitude. From earlier chapters, we've already learned that Percy Fawcett would press his men to carry on to the point of illness and death; would have done the same with his own son, or his son's friend?

On the fate of the expedition after it passed from contact with the western world we learn little -- Grann tells tales of multiple searchers and theories as to what happened, which in the end become a bit of a jumble. What's arguably the most fascinating claim of them all -- one based on a skull recovered and thought to be Fawcett's, until its identity was disproven using the explorer's spare set of dentures -- merits scarcely a page. And in the end, Grann offers up a seeming-resolution that ends up feeling anticlimactic, however interesting its archaeological evidence.

But you must be the judge: how does this tale differ, in its substance and its telling, from the Franklin stories, or the fabulous tales of Poe? Is it worse to lose fingers and toes to frostbite or to have various worms and parasites burrow and make one's flesh fetid? Or are both tales not much more than a sort of vain machismo against an unrelenting, and ultimately indifferent, natural world?

Your thoughts below.


  1. At times, I do find the Franklin and Fawcett stories to be a little egotistical and vain. These men are pioneers exploring uncharted territory, but at the same time, they are disrupting the environments in which they travel through their exploration. If these stories have taught us anything, it is that the natural world is unpredictable and uncontrollable. The legacy of other explorers and the availability of maps provide a false sense of security and an assumption that traversing these mysterious places is somehow manageable and predictable. Their efforts are not all bad necessarily, but I feel that they both operate under the belief that they are capable of conquering and dominating the land for the sake of their own ego and the potential accolades. The "obsession" may not be pure curiosity or desire to learn more about the area, but instead a more narcissistic obsession with being the first and best. That comes through in "The Lost City of Z" with the competitiveness between Fawcett and Rice.

  2. While comparing The Lost City of Z and The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, I did find them both to be somewhat built off of egotistical intentions. Both Franklin and Poe build stories upon their character’s idea that they are destined for greatness. Their characters are in far too over their heads for the exploration that lies ahead, Poe more so than Franklin’s. I think that the personal infatuation with succeeding on their journeys take away from the beauty and fascination of the natural world. Although the violent and animalistic situations are part of any true nature expedition, it is also important to note that some of them could have been avoided. Nature is beautiful and exhilarating but it can also be ruthless. Both Poe and Franklin showcase the dark side of nature due to the vanity of their characters. They were unprepared and too caught up in the potential fantasy of being “heroes” and “legends” that they were unable to succeed and experience the true wonders of the natural world.

  3. First, I agree with you about Grann’s choice of structure. I found myself becoming frustrated with his slow start and largely dead-end digressions, which were not by themselves uninteresting, but when placed in the middle of the book’s main narrative became distracting. As we talked about in class, I thought this was largely a problem of a journalist undertaking his first book. However, Grann first published this narrative in the New Yorker as an article and it shares the same strange structural qualities. Grann does some great research and makes some interesting discoveries and the one narrative addition I enjoyed was his research narrative, especially when it revealed changes to the Amazon since Fawcett’s time.

    I also could not help but go into the rabbit hole of Fawcett mysticism mentioned by Grann in Chapter 25. In particular, I went to the website of the Greek explorer he mentions on page 301. Thankfully, there is no longer a secret password to gain access to that information trove. The owner of the website is a Greek man named Emmanouil Lalaios, who has both Facebook and Twitter devoted to Percy Fawcett and his relationship to the Hollow Earth theory. Mr. Lalaios seems to have been traveling since the mid-1970s, getting the Fawcett bug in the 1998. Much of the website’s activity seems to have shifted to a Facebook page, which was last updated on February 12th with a post showing himself in “Dedo De Deus, the mysterious mountain range in Mato Grosso, supposedly the entrances to underground kingdom of Ibez and UFOs often appear here.” For those of graduating after the semester, they are looking for volunteers to go on an adventure to Ibez, “the place where Colonel Fawcett lives nowadays an everlasting life together with other persons known in the human history that they are not alive today, a place that is also inhabitant by the 'Others', a highly advanced civilization.” The human imagination is a powerful thing. I do admire Mr. Lalaios in a way, he seems dedicated, perseverant, and focused on a subject in a way I have never been.

  4. I keep thinking about how we learn that Fawcett pressured his men to keep going even when they were sickly, and it not only reminds me of Franklin, but of Charles Francis Hall before he was murdered for that drive. I wonder if it is justifiable to assume that Fawcett did do the same with his son and his sons friend, which is one of the reasons they didn't make it home. Also, I do agree that the format of the book feels off, and is relies too heavily on these reconstructed flashbacks from Grann. I almost forgot that he was even apart of the story at times. Oh, and I would rather lose fingers and toes to frost bite than worms option. Personally, I felt like Grann having the realization that figuring out what happened to Fawcett seemed "trivial" by the end. It felt sort of like a let down for the whole book and all of the "flashbacks". I think if the book had more Grann in it then it wouldn't have felt that way.

  5. As I was reading The Lost City of Z I also noticed how egotistical the men are. I have noticed it in every reading we have read so far. Fawcett, Rice, Pym, Hall, Franklin and many other characters we have discussed so far all have this obsession and risk everything for the sake of their voyages. They leave behind what should matter the most to them (their families), for these dangerous expeditions. Meanwhile the women back home are expected to wait and pray for their macho husbands who in exchange wouldn’t think twice about leaving them behind for years at a time. Like Lady Franklin, Nina also becomes more and more obsessed over her husband's disappearance. I think the gender roles are very unfair in the works we have read so far because the men only think about themselves and their expeditions, and when things don’t work out as planned, the women are the ones left to mourn the deaths of their husbands while also trying to be selfless and take care of their homes/children.

  6. I agree with all of the comments above. The ecogisticness in these novels is significant in terms of exploration. Although there seems to be some drive and interest in traveling, these men are risking their lives knowing that the chances of them return to their homes, friends and families are slim to none. Through the novels I have gotten the sense that the explorers were mainly interested in claiming more land and getting further than the guy before.

  7. I think in a general sense, it was interesting to read about the true beast that lies in nature and that creates a huge struggle for humans to survive out on their own against it. How brave and noble of Fawcett to want to find this lost civilization and explore the unknown. I think that this is extremely brave but it is unnerving to experience the amazon on your own. As we talked about in class, the girls who were lost in the amazon, were not prepared for the amazon without proper equipment or maps. This is never something to take for granted.

  8. Franklin and Fawcett are similar in many ways. Most obviously, the two were both obsessively driven, put themselves (and their families) through immense hardships, and disappeared. While the artifacts and graves give Franklin’s story a bit more closure, the lack of physical evidence around Fawcett’s disappearance it, to me, more tragic and more intriguing. But what I found most interesting about Fawcett’s story is that there is a possibility he wasn't searching for something impossible and wasn't as crazy as so many people thought he was. When Isabelle, Fawcett’s great-granddaughter says, “I envy my great-grandfather, really…In his day, you could still go marching off and discover some hidden part of the world. Now where can you go?” (90), I agreed, until the end. Heckenberger’s discovery of Kuhikugu kinda blew my mind and while he was describing the walls, the moats, the bridge to Grann it was easy to imagine this great big city in the middle of the jungle and feel a bit more connected to Grann’s vision kinda thing in the end. I mean, I get that discovering is the point of archaeology, but for me, Kuhikugu changed my idea of Isabelle’s words: a hidden part of the world was discovered. On earth now, it’s not so much about discovering an unmapped place but the discovering the old we knew nothing about. Oh, and I like how the role of oral tradition is brought up in both (Franklin/Inuit and Fawcett/Kalapalo).