The Lost City of Z

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

David Grann’s The Lost City of Z arose out of a famous failed Amazonian expedition of the 1920’s. In May, 1925, Lieutenant Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett left the tiny trading depot of Bakairí Post to continue his journey toward the upper Xingu River in Central Brazil. A veteran of six previous expeditions to South America, he was an experienced explorer and surveyor with a reputation for being able to endure great physical hardship. On this occasion, however, rather than surveying borders and the courses of rivers, Fawcett had a different aim in mind. He was searching for what he called the City of Z. Fawcett believed that in the past the Amazon basin had supported a sophisticated civilization, and he was searching for evidence of its existence. With Fawcett were his eldest son, Jack, and Jack’s boyhood friend and inseparable companion, Raleigh Rimell. Fawcett’s last dispatch, dated May 29, was brought back to Bakairí by Indian porters who had been unwilling to continue the journey. Neither Fawcett, nor his son, nor Rimell were ever seen or heard from again.

When he had left, Fawcett had told his wife Nina not to expect to hear from him for at least two years. Consequently, it was not until 1928 that the first rescue mission, led by Commander George Dyott, finally arrived in the area where Fawcett had last been seen. The Kalapalo Indians had been the last to see Fawcett’s party before it headed into difficult and unknown country where aggressive Indian tribes lived. The Kalapalo informed Dyott that they had seen smoke from Fawcett’s campfires for five days after he left their territory. After that, they had seen no sign of him. They believed that Fawcett’s party had been massacred, and Dyott agreed.

However, the story does not end there. Expedition after expedition has set out to solve the riddle of Fawcett’s disappearance. Tantalizing details have emerged from time to time. Expedition artefacts have been retrieved; as late as 1979, Fawcett’s signet ring was discovered in a shop in Cuiabá. In 1951, Fawcett’s bones were allegedly discovered, though subsequent examination suggested that they were not in fact remains of his body. Still, the would-be explorers keep arriving, among them David Grann himself.

Grann first came across the story of Fawcett’s disappearance while researching another story. Well aware of the fact that people tended to become obsessed with solving the mystery, Grann nonetheless decided to look into the story in greater detail. Before long, he found that he too had been bitten by the Fawcett bug. In particular, he was intrigued by Fawcett’s belief that the Amazonian rain forests concealed a lost city, and he became determined to find out more about this supposed city and about Fawcett himself.

Fawcett’s father had belonged to an aristocratic English family and had been a friend of the future King Edward VII when Edward was still prince of Wales. A brilliant sportsman, he had failed to live up to early promise and had instead turned to alcohol, dying young. Fawcett’s mother seemed to have little interest in her son, and the decisions she made about his education were often whimsical. She sent him to a military academy because she liked the uniform, rather than because he had any interest in a military career. Fawcett’s education, as Grann puts it, fitted him to be an English gentleman but for little else. However, by dint of great effort, Fawcett managed to establish himself as a soldier renowned for his toughness. He was bitten early by the treasure-hunting bug, while stationed in Ceylon. He was also acquainted with H. Rider Haggard, the author of King Solomon’s Mines (1885) and other adventure stories. Fired by these associations and by his own older brother’s novels, Fawcett determined to become an explorer and undertook the Royal Geographical Society’s course for explorers and surveyors.

Having passed with flying colors, Fawcett was dispatched to Bolivia to assist in mapping its borders with Brazil and Peru. There and during subsequent expeditions, he began to hear stories about lost cities in the jungle, and he became determined to locate such a place. Hiram Bingham, an amateur archaeologist, had recently discovered Macchu Picchu, in the high Andes, and Fawcett became obsessed with the notion of finding a lost city that he had heard about and that he dubbed “Z.” Although he was fairly confident that...

(The entire section is 1814 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Archaeology 62, no. 3 (May/June, 2009): 14-15.

Booklist 105, no. 5 (November 1, 2008): 4.

Geographical 81, no. 3 (March, 2009): 61.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 23 (December 1, 2008): 1241.

Kirkus Reviews 77, no. 2 (January 15, 2009): special section, p. 6.

Library Journal 133, no. 18 (November 1, 2008): 86.

London Review of Books 31, no. 10 (May 28, 2009): 17-18.

The Nation 288, no. 14 (April 13, 2009): 32-36.

The New York Review of Books 56, no. 8 (May 14, 2009): 14-16.

The New York Times, March 22, 2009, p. 6.

The New York Times, March 17, 2009, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 2009, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 41 (October 13, 2008): 44-45.

Spectator 309, no. 9422 (March 28, 2009): 34-36.

The Times Literary Supplement, June 5, 2009, p. 7-8.

The Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2009, p. W6.