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Friday, March 27, 2009

In Search of Lost Worlds

A real-life adventure

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When you were younger, did you enjoy reading novels of dangerous exploits in fabulous, far-off parts of this world or others-the kind of adventures found in works by H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle? If you want to recapture some of that blood-stirring reading experience, look no further than David Grann's The Lost City of Z (Doubleday). And better yet, all of it is true.

Percy Harrison Fawcett, Grann writes, was "the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass and an almost divine sense of purpose." In this "Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon," as the subtitle accurately puts it, TheNew Yorker journalist Grann tells Fawcett's gripping life story while focusing on his famous, final, fatal foray in search of a hidden ancient civilization, possibly built on gold and treasures-an El Dorado-in the jungles of Brazil. Fawcett called it the "City of Z."

Born in 1867, Fawcett began a career as a British army officer before becoming fascinated with exploring. His first expedition to South America occurred in 1906, when he mapped a jungle area along the border of Brazil and Bolivia.

It was foolhardy to go even once into the pestiferous Amazon, where, Fawcett said, the animal kingdom "is against man as it is nowhere else in the world." It was madness to enter it again after having endured its horrific rigors. Yet Fawcett made seven ventures, always in extremely small and inadequately financed parties, between 1906 and 1924, with time out for army service during World War I.

His rugged physical constitution seemed all but impervious to the malaria, insects, poisonous plants and dangerous creatures that afflicted even the hardiest of explorers. He deliberately planted false information, such as map coordinates, to misdirect any who would follow, and had little respect for anyone unable to keep up with his manic pace.

"Every year in the jungle seemed to make him harder and more fanatical," Grann writes. Meanwhile, his wife, Nina, and three children lived in genteel poverty, and sometimes worse.

Over time Fawcett found evidence rebutting the prevailing "environmental determinism" view that no complex civilization could have emerged in so hostile an environment. He admired the native tribes, spoke their languages and vehemently opposed viewing them as "savages," though he was racist in looking for the "whiteness" factor that he thought explained more sophisticated tribes.

And he became convinced, as were many others, that somewhere a magnificent lost civilization was to be found.

The author constructs his narrative well. Chapters describing Fawcett's life alternate with chapters devoted to Grann's researches and interviews and preparations for his own 2005 "expedition" retracing Fawcett's steps.

Grann would not be the first to do so. Over the years Fawcett has become an obsession for some. Scores of search-and-rescue efforts were launched that took the lives of as many as 100 people. In recent decades cults have sprung up in Brazil that worship Fawcett as a sort of god.

By the time of his last expedition in 1925, Fawcett, at 57, had lost some of his awesome physical prowess. He was associating with psychics and spiritualists of various stripes and filling his papers "with reams of delirious writings."

Only two others accompanied him on this final trip: his 21-year-old son, Jack, and Jack's best friend and contemporary, Raleigh Rimell. The scantily equipped group was assaulted by the usual jungle horrors, including swarms of insects like black rain. The last words Fawcett wrote to his wife were, "You need have no fear of any failure." After that, silence.

Hope was held out for years. Maybe they had been captured? Or had they actually found Z and, enraptured, saw no point in leaving? There were "sightings" and, of course, the search parties.

As for Z, one of the persons Grann met in the jungle was Michael Heckenberger, a University of Florida archaeologist. In southern Brazil, where Fawcett explored, Heckenberger has found demonstrable traces of ancient roads, bridges, plazas and networks of urban communities that apparently contained populations of many thousands.

At the very least, Heckenberger's discoveries may help dispel, as Fawcett tried to do, the impression of an "untouched" Amazon before the arrival of Europeans. It might not be El Dorado, but, to Grann, it sounds a lot like Fawcett's Z.

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