The Lost City of Z

Percy Harrison Fawcett (he went by “Colonel,” although he was only a lieutenant colonel) was among the last of the gentleman explorers, the generalists who set out with machete and sketchbook to fill in the blank spots on the globe. Born in 1867, Fawcett, a wiry teetotalling Englishman who seemed immune to malaria, did this work better and faster than anyone believed was possible: in 1906–7 he mapped the border between Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil, an inhospitable jungle river; in the seven years that followed he was all over the Amazon, sometimes following rivers, sometimes hacking his way overland, always with only a small party to help him. His surveying trips won him a medal from the Royal Geographical Society and a certain amount of fame (although never any money); but the expedition for which he is best known is the one he undertook in 1925, accompanied only by his son Jack and Raleigh Rimmell, Jack’s boyhood friend. They were looking for a legendary city, which Fawcett referred to in his notes as “Z.” None of them ever returned.

The 1925 expedition has been the subject of much speculation: in addition to the reasonable hypotheses (that Fawcett, Jack, and Rimmell died of natural causes in the jungle or were killed by unfriendly Indians) students of the mystery have imagined that Fawcett was being held captive, or that he had found his city and decided to stay there, or even that he vanished via a mystical portal into the hollow earth. He shows up now and then in the popular imagination: in a volume of Tintin, in an Indiana Jones novel. In 2005 a British theater director claimed, on the evidence of Fawcett’s private letters, that the explorer never intended to return from the jungle; instead he planned to start a secret community organized around the worship of his son, along with other “unusual beliefs.”

David Grann re-covers this ground in his new book, The Lost City of Z. Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is both more thorough and more reliable than most of Fawcett’s chroniclers; he follows the explorer from his childhood in England through his military service in Ceylon, his years as a spy in the Middle East, an Amazon explorer, a soldier, and, finally, the victim of his own need to find the aptly named Z, the last letter in the alphabet of his travels.

It’s a phenomenal story, and Grann doesn’t stint on details. We learn (can this be true?) that Fawcett’s mother sent him to the punishing Royal Military Academy at Woolwich because she “liked the splendid uniforms”; that Fawcett’s brother Edward helped Helena Blavatsky, through whose ample body every story of 19th-century mysticism must apparently pass, to research her three-volume opus The Secret Doctrine; and that Edward became a writer of popular adventure novels, “the English answer to Jules Verne,” whose fictions feature fantastical lost cities not unlike the one Percy would die looking for.

The real explorers who populate The Lost City of Z are no less colorful than the imaginary ones. Fawcett’s chief rival in the race to map the South American interior was an American doctor named Alexander Hamilton Rice, whose disposition, means, and methods were the opposite of Fawcett’s own. Rice equipped large groups at great personal expense and liked gadgetry: he was the first explorer to bring a radio into the jungle (it weighed 40 pounds, cost the equivalent of $67,000, and couldn’t transmit, but it did allow him to keep up with the news), and even built a 40-foot amphibious vessel that might have come straight from one of Edward Fawcett’s adventure novels. Rice represented the future of exploration, and Percy Fawcett must at some level have known it; one of the more melancholy currents that runs through The Lost City of Z is Fawcett’s growing interest in the occult — he was a contributor to The Occult Review and wrote an article on “Obsession” for Light magazine — as though he’d realized that in the material world he was already overmatched.

However strange Fawcett became, however, the people who went looking for him were stranger. The greater tragedy of the Fawcett expedition isn’t the fact of Percy Fawcett’s own disappearance, or his son’s, or even the disappearance of poor Raleigh Rimmell, who’d fallen in love with a duke’s daughter on the way to Brazil and had second thoughts about the whole lost-city thing. It’s the surprisingly large number of people who died trying to find him, or Z, or both — all told, perhaps 100. Among them was a Swiss named Rattin, who claimed to have seen Fawcett alive in the jungle, and a Hollywood actor named Albert de Winton, who spent nine months in the jungle, emerged, went back, and didn’t emerge again. Eventually it got so bad that the Brazilian government required explorers looking for Fawcett to obtain special permission.

Not everyone who looked for him died. In 1928, an explorer named George Miller Dyott took a party into the Amazon and claimed to have proof that Fawcett had been killed by Indians (his story didn’t hold up, but he wrote a book and got a movie deal anyway). One expedition turned up Fawcett’s bones (they weren’t) and another found Fawcett’s grandson Dulipé, the “White God of the Xingu” (he wasn’t). In 1996, a Brazilian banker and his son went looking and were kidnapped; fortunately they could pay. Then there was David Grann.

Grann’s story of his own trip to the interior, sections of which are interspersed through the book, is impressive: even in the days of the Land Rover and the satellite phone, poking around in the jungle is risky, uncomfortable work. And yet I can’t help wishing that Grann had made less of himself. Maybe it’s because his adventures, for all their hairy moments, pale in comparison to Fawcett’s really horrific slogs through the wilderness, which Grann had to compress in order to keep his book to a manageable size. Or maybe it’s because the story of the journalist — especially the one who, as Grann says of himself, likes “take-out food, sports highlights, and the air-conditioning on high” — who is compelled not only to write about but to relive his subject matter has become a nonfiction writer’s clich?. As far as I can tell, Grann’s own travels turned up no information about Fawcett or Z that hadn’t been published elsewhere. It’s the one part of the book that functions less as an exploration than as a kind of creaky simulacrum, an adventure ride that takes us to a city that’s been found over and over.