Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon by David Grann

Ever since I was a child I have been captivated by tales of true life mysterious disappearances, the stories of people who vanished seemingly without a trace, never to be seen or heard from again. The story of Colonel Percy Fawcett, one of the last great Victorian explorers, who in 1925 vanished into “The Green Hell” of the dense, dangerous, and uncharted Amazon jungle while searching for a fabled lost city he cryptically referred to only as Z, has always fascinated me.

Since his disappearance, hundreds have sought the solution to this mystery, many have perished, suffered untold agonies, or vanished themselves in search of the elusive explorer and his two traveling companions—his 21 year old movie-star-handsome son Jack, and his lifelong best friend Raleigh Rimell.

Now this new book, "The Lost City of Z," by journalist David Grann, takes the search for Colonel Fawcett into the 21st century, collecting the myths, rumors, legends, and searches for the lost explorer. It also tells about his colorful life of adventure, how he came to be an explorer, and the great love story of his marriage to devoted, and loyally long-suffering wife Nina Paterson Fawcett who never gave up searching for her husband in this world or the next. When clues were lacking in the real world, Nina sought them in séance rooms and crystal balls. Nina schooled herself to be impartial, spending her days pouring over her husband’s papers and maps, weighing each tantalizing clue that came in for veracity or falsehood, and till her dying day, at age 84 in 1953, she never stopped hoping that her long lost husband would walk through the door.

Grann was granted access to Fawcett’s journals and papers still held by descendants and the Royal Geographical Society. He even ventured into the Amazon himself in search of clues regarding Fawcett’s fate and talked to an elderly native woman, born circa 1910, who is probably the last living person to have encountered the doomed explorer when he and his party passed through her village. He also met with Fawcett’s granddaughter who told him about the last concrete trace of Fawcett, his gold signet ring engraved with his motto “Nec Aspera Terrent” or “Difficulties Be Damned,” which surfaced in a Mato Grosso shop in 1979. Desperate for more information, Fawcett’s family consulted a psychic, who said the ring had been “bathed in blood.”

From the moment his disappearance became public knowledge, theories abounded about Fawcett’s fate. It was widely believed that he and his party had been captured by hostile Indians and either killed or held captive. There were also rumors that he and his party had fallen victim to headhunters or provided sustenance for cannibals. The more pragmatic believed that the missing men had simply died of starvation, one of the many illnesses, infections, or diseases rampant in the jungle, or become victims of the many dangerous and venomous creatures, some of Nature’s best weapons, that make their home in the Amazon. While the more fanciful and romantically inclined chose to believe the missing men had turned their backs on civilization and “gone native.”

In the 1940s a young Indian boy with startlingly white skin and blue eyes was put forward as the alleged son of Jack Fawcett and a native woman until medical tests confirmed that—as Nina Fawcett suspected after seeing photos that suggested the boy’s eyes were troubled by bright light—he was indeed an albino. In the 1950s an Indian tribe produced bones they claimed were Colonel Fawcett’s mortal remains, however, an examination by the Royal Anthropological Society in London proved this to be false as well—Percy Fawcett was a keen rugby player in his youth and had his front teeth knocked out during a game, as a result he wore an upper denture plate for the rest of his life. His spare plate was on hand to compare with the dentition of the skull. The skeletal remains also proved to belong to a much shorter man than the nearly 6’2” Colonel Fawcett.

Tantalizing reports, some later exposed as fraudulent, trickled in throughout the years from people who claimed to have encountered the captive Colonel. One Swiss trapper, who himself vanished without a trace on a follow-up expedition to rescue Fawcett, claimed to have spoken with the imprisoned explorer, who implored him to go to the British Consulate and tell Major Paget that he needed help. This detail, despite other inconsistencies in the trapper’s tale, rang true as Paget really was a friend and supporter of Fawcett’s.

Another disturbing theory surfaced in 1952, though it was not made public at the time, when Fawcett’s youngest son, Brian, a dissatisfied engineer, decided to write a book about his father’s expeditions, “Exploration Fawcett,” which would go on to become a popular bestseller. Amongst Fawcett’s papers, Brian found page after page of deluded ravings about the end of the world, Atlantis, Madame Blavatsky’s beliefs (she was the founder of a religion known as Theosophy) with the lost city of Z as the central theme tying them all together. In his private writings, Fawcett likened Z to the Garden of Eden, even going so far as to call it “the cradle of civilization,” and espoused the belief that he would “attain transcendence” upon finding it. Brian recalled that his father had once written in a letter to a friend that “Those whom the Gods intend to destroy they first make mad!” Remembering these words in light of his recent discoveries, they took on a chilling new meaning for Brian Fawcett. Had the search for Z been only a mystical pipe dream that ended up costing three men—and many of those who went in search of them—their lives? To this day, there are certain religious cults, based on theosophical principles and hollow earth theories, that revere Colonel Fawcett as a god, they believe he found Z, a portal to an alternate reality, and there he still lives, presiding over a subterranean city.

All in all, I found "The Lost City of Z" to be a very hard book to put down. I recommend it to anyone who likes tales of adventure, archaeology, Indiana Jones style explorers, the search for lost civilizations and treasure, or real life mysteries.