Exploring obsession with David Grann and The Lost City of Z

The Lost City of Z is a non-fiction account of author David Grann’s research of, and consequent obsession with, the story of Colonel Percy Fawcett and his mysterious search for an ancient lost city in the depths of the treacherous Amazon.

I rarely read non-fiction but this found its way onto my reading list thanks to my bi-monthly book club. I’m pleased it did. Grann mastered the ability to switch his narrative from Fawcett’s story to his own, and back again between chapters, keeping me interested and never annoyed. Most books that switch between narratives too often can get tiresome to read and break the thread of the story but The Lost City of Z didn’t suffer that problem.

The story itself was intriguing. I know a writer has captured my imagination when I hop onto Wikipedia the moment I finish a book in order to read further into the topic. I’d never heard of Fawcett and, ignorantly, didn’t realise that there was still enough earth left to explore in the 1920s!

The Lost City of Z focuses on Fawcett and his character. Grann studies Fawcett’s first tastes of exploration when he was stationed in Ceylon and follows his life from then on. Fawcett starts exploring and mapping South America and quickly develops a reputation for being the most resilient explorer in the world, with no patience for slow walkers or injured members of the exploration party. Through Grann’s research into letters and interviews we discover some unsavoury snippets of Fawcett’s personality. We see how this approach leads him to his fateful final expedition, where he takes his son and his best friend in the hopes of discovering the city of Z and along with it, fame fortune and the eternal glory of his name in the history books. They never returned.

For would be explorers, this story alone is interesting enough but what really pulled me in was the fact that an estimated 100 people lost their lives looking for Fawcett after he and his party went missing. Why, why did they do this? Why risk everything? Then it occurred to me that we live in a different age now, there is little real exploring to do on earth, and the world is so small. But if someone offered me a trip to space, would I turn that down, what with all its risks and unknowns? Of course not, and neither would I hold back a family member if that’s what they chose to do. That’s why Fawcet’s wife, Nina, didn’t ever dream of stopping her husband and son from embarking on the perilous journey but rather spurred them on and raised their profiles with the media. Human curiosity is a natural thing, and is to be celebrated.

Speaking of Nina, there’s a story I would like to hear more about. Nina sacrificed everything for Fawcett’s adventures. She went from a comfortable life with a wealthy family to almost living in poverty whilst Fawcett spent years away at a time exploring. She raised their children alone and never floundered in encouraging his explorations. She expressed wishes to accompany him but this never happened. I can’t help but feel sad for Nina, after years spent supporting her husband and never getting a chance at exploring herself, she spent her life after the disappearance of her husband and son still eagerly believing that they would be found.

One criticism I might level at the book is that the author never seems to face up to his own obsessions. Grann pursues researching Fawcett’s story extensively, to the point where he leaves behind his wife and newborn in order to look forĀ  Fawcett and Z himself. Grann does not train or prepare himself for this undertaking, he can’t even pick out his own equipment in a shop. Although its apt that in his research and writing Grann himself becomes one of the obsessed, (and it is a very tidy way for the story to work out), it does seem irresponsible. Although Grann gets a local guide, and, due to extensive deforestation, is able to drive down much of the path that Fawcett would have had to trek through, his blind pursuance of the story seemsĀ  a little mad. Grann’s linking of Fawcett’s story to his own, and the way the switching of the narratives feels like Grann is chasing Fawcett through the pages of the book, is a sure sign that Grann too had become a little obsessed, he never actually owns up to it, never just says, wow, what I thinking!

All in all though, this is an absorbing read and I learnt a lot about the history of the Amazon. I’d highly recommend this if you’re looking for some non-fiction to read but still want a story out of it.