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Book Review: The Lost City of Z

16 September 2009

I used to think I wanted to visit the Amazon.

But it wasn’t the big predators that he and his companions fretted about most. It was the ceaseless pests. The sauba ants that could reduce men’s clothes and rucksacks to threads in a single night. The ticks that attached like leeches (another scourge) and the red hairy chiggers that consumed human tissue. The cyanide-squirting millipedes. The parasitic worms that caused blindness. The berne flies that drove their ovipostors through clothing and deposited larval eggs that hatched and burrowed under the skin. The almost invisible biting flies called piums that left the explorers’ bodies covered in lesions. Then there were the “kissing bugs,” which bite their victim on the lips, tranferring a protozoan called Typanasoma cruzi; twenty years later, the person, thinking he had escaped the jungle unharmed, would begin to die of heart or brain swelling. Nothing, though, was more hazardous that the mosquitoes. They transmitted everything from malaria to “bone-crusher” fever to elephantiasis to yellow fever. “[Mosquitoes] constitute the chief single reason why Amazonia is a frontier still to be won,” Willard Price wrote in his 1952 book The Amazing Amazon.

I put The Lost City of Z, by David Gramm, on my library request list back when it was first reviewed in the New York Times. I think Michiko Kakutani was overexuberant about Gramm’s writing — I was tempted at times to give up on the book, mostly because some of it felt too contrived: The overshadowing Preface; the abrupt end of a chapter just as a group of adventure seekers (including the 16-year-old son of the leader) are caught by tribesmen who threaten, “You are our prisoners for life!”, then leaving that story for an exposition of the author’s chubbiness and general inexperience with anything more grueling than a walk across the island of Manhattan; the way the “secret” of the city of Z is exposed to us at the end, although the author must have known about it before we get to that point.

I’m glad I stuck it out, though. The harshness of the landscape is greater than we think (over half of the visiting opera troupe invited to christen Manaos’s opera house during the rubber boom died of malaria), the effect of contact with Europeans was more devastating that we can imagine, and the terrible treatment of native groups by the rubber barons is worse than what happened to native groups in North America.

Archaeologists have made unbelievable discoveries about pre-European culture in the Amazon, and I’m saddened to think no one really knows about them.

The explorer Fawcett was a tough old coot, and his experiences should be better known than they are. But the tragedy of his disappearance is that, feeling himself getting older (he was 57 when he left on his last adventure), and fearing his competitors were getting ahead of him in exploring the unknowns of the Amazon, the he made an extremely irresponsible decision: Taking his 21-year-old, movie-star wannabe, completely inexperienced son and the son’s best-buddy as his only fellow explorers in the search for Z.

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