- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

By David Grann
Doubleday, $27.50, 339 pages

What a curious, intriguing and ultimately utterly maddening work is David Grann’s recounting of the obsessive quest of one English gentleman named Percy Fawcett. Fawcett was an archetypical example of certain products of Victorian England — intrepid explorer, military man, scholar — with Richard Burton (not the Welsh actor) being perhaps the most notable and best remembered of the breed today.

Percy Fawcett was the son of a man distinguished as a soldier and a cricketer who died of consumption augmented by alcoholism by the age of 45. At 17, Fawcett was sent much against his will to the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich by a cold, domineering mother (later described by her son in a letter to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, as “hateful”). Upon graduation, he was shipped off with the Royal Artillery to a fort in a quiet port in Ceylon, there undergoing an experience that may well have marked him for life. He was told a wondrous tale about a treasure of jewels and gold hidden away in a cave in the ruins of an ancient city that he promptly set out to find. His quest was completely futile, but it set the pattern for what would be the rest of his life.

David Grann, a New Yorker writer, stumbled on Fawcett’s quest quite by accident, and it would lead him on a quest of his own culminating in this tale of obsession. In 2004, Mr. Grann was researching details about “the mysterious death” of Conan Doyle and came upon mention of Fawcett, a distinguished and persistent explorer of the Amazon, having been awarded by the Royal Geographical Society a gold medal “for his contributions to the mapping of South America. It seems every few years Fawcett, thin and bedraggled, would emerge from the Amazonian jungles to speak of his travels under the auspices of the Geographical Society.

At one such of these talks, Conan Doyle was present, and it seems Fawcett inspired Doyle to utilize his experiences for his 1912 book “The Lost World,” in which explorers “disappear into the unknown” of South America to discover on an isolated plateau a land where dinosaurs have escaped extinction — sound like a movie you’ve seen some time?

Ever since Francisco de Orellana and a small troop of Spanish conquistadores went down the Amazon River in 1542, perhaps no other place on earth has so fired men’s imagination nor led so many to lonely, cruel deaths. Indians told tales of a magical kingdom off in the jungle, El Dorado, where gold was so abundant that, as Sir Walter Raleigh was to write: Indians ground the metal into powder and blew it “thorow hollow canes upon their naked bodies until they be al shining from the foote to the head.”

But men never ceased their quest for El Dorado. Fawcett, however, was convinced not merely there was gold and treasure buried in the jungle, but after digging up artifacts, studying petroglyphs and interviewing sundry tribes he was convinced more than ever that an ancient, highly cultured people was still living in the Brazilian jungle. Moreover, he was utterly convinced this civilization was so old and sophisticated it would forever change the Western view of the Americas.

He had christened this lost world the City of Z. “The central place I call ‘Z’ — our main objective — is in a valley — about ten miles wide, and the city is on an eminence in the middle of it, approached by a barreled roadway of stone. The houses are low and windowless, and there is a pyramidal temple.”

With funding from the most respectable scientific institutions and accompanied by his 21-year-old son, Jack, and his son’s best chum, Raleigh Rimell, Percy Fawcett in 1925 set forth on the quest from which he would never return. Many were those who sought to find him over the decades. Over 60 years until she died, his loving wife was still convinced he and their son would eventually return.

Mr. Grann, who describes himself as being anything but of an adventurous nature, decided to try and track down Fawcett and his lost city of Z. To be fair, he makes a pretty good tale of it. Accompanied by a 52-year-old former professional samba dancer and theater director, they headed for the Xingu National Park. He certainly convinces the reader just how unpleasant it is sinking well over one’s ankles in mud while being bitten by red ants and mosquitoes.

He does a fine job as well of tracing Fawcett’s life apart from his quest — his time as a spy for the British Foreign Service in Morocco and his service in the trenches in World War I, which left him with a medal as well as being cited numerous times for his “gallant” and “distinguished” services under fire. Mr. Grann does an especially vivid piece of writing in describing wartime battle scenes.

Where perhaps Mr. Grann lets his readers down is when he comes together with an archaeologist, Michael Heckenberger, who has been living and working among tribes in the Xingu not far from where Fawcett and his companions were last ever seen. We learn in the next-to-last page of the book that a tribe living in the Xingu still organizes its village along east and west cardinal points and its paths were aligned at right angles, although the natives no longer know why that is. And then we have our author imagining the lost city of Z before his eyes, and then comes the book’s end. Frustrating really. Maybe we’ll have to wait for Mr. Heckenberger to come out of the jungle and write his book.

Cynthia Grenier is a writer and critic in Washington.

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