Book Review – The Lost City of Z by David Grann (2009) – Read the book before the film comes out!
I tend to be more of a reader of fiction than non-fiction, but when I heard about this book it sounded incredibly interesting. It had also been announced that Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B is to turn it in to a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch, directed by David Gray and with filming possibly due to take place this year, I was keen to read the book on which any such film was to be based.
The title of the book refers to the name given by Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett, a British surveyor and explorer in the early part of the twentieth century, to a city he was certain existed within the Mato Grosso region of the Amazon in Brazil. The idea of Z or El Dorado had existed for hundreds of years but no one had ever provided hard evidence that it was anything more than a myth. After many successful and highly publicised expeditions in the Amazon (and after a recent failed trip to find Z), Fawcett set out in 1925 with his 21 year-old son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmell to finally find this lost civilisation. At the age of 57 he knew this was possibly his last chance and was more determined than ever. The three were waved off by the world’s media. They never returned and since their disappearance many have followed in their footsteps to find evidence of their expedition (which has become as mythical as Z itself).
In this absorbing book, David Grann chronicles his exploration in to Fawcett’s life and career as well as his own trip to the Amazon to try and shed light on Fawcett’s last known days and whether Z really could have existed. He weaves perfectly between the modern day and the past. Some chapters reveal Grann’s time researching Fawcett as he visits archives and speaks to descendants of Fawcett and those who knew him best, while preparing for his own journey (for which he has absolutely no previous experience)! Others delve in to Fawcett’s story, as we follow his perilous journeys through the jungle and his growing reputation. The book highlights just how dangerous such a profession was at that time, when communication with the outside world was only possible through runners carrying correspondence through the jungle and the terrain, climate, dangers and inhabitants of the region (both human and animal) were an unknown.
It’s quite shocking to read how people risked their health and lives to venture in to the jungle and I certainly felt respect for Fawcett and the other explorers referred to in the book on reading about everything they accomplished. Our very understanding of South American geography is based on the efforts of these men over a century ago and with all the modern technology available today it’s easy to forget what was required back then to achieve this.
Fawcett is also a complex character. He is clearly devoted to his work and achieved important milestones in exploration. However he is quite a stern man, whose lack of sympathy for those less able to cope in the treacherous surroundings at times seems harsh and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for his wife, as he left her and their children for years at a time to go on expedition after expedition. However you cannot help but admire his commitment to his work and also his strict code of treating the Amazon tribes with respect, rather than aggression. He certainly must have been incredibly brave to risk death by engaging with tribes who understandably were wary of Western interference.
Knowing the outcome of the book from the start adds a level of poignancy too as you read it. We learn how successful Fawcett was in his prime, how much he achieved despite all the odds and how everyone seemed to believe he was invincible due to his ability to survive even the worst conditions. However all the time we know that the final achievement he craves will never come and as I reached the last few chapters I felt quite sad that the outcome could not have been different for him and his small team. I particularly enjoyed Grann’s writing in this latter part of the book, as we go along with him on his own trip to the jungle (the fact it’s his book at least gives us comfort that he survives!) and it’s incredibly interesting to see how modern innovations in technology are being used to shed light on mysteries of the past like Fawcett’s city of Z.
I am now quite curious to see how the book will be adapted for film. Will they simply set it in the past, charting Fawcett’s life, or will they also weave in a way of incorporating the modern trip taken by a character similar to Grann so that what he learns can be included in the film? It’s also interesting to hear that Benedict Cumberbatch has been cast as Fawcett. One of my favourite actors, I’m sure he will bring Fawcett’s relentless determination and intelligence to life very well. It remains to be seen whether he will also play the older Fawcett, who at the time of his last trip was much older than Cumberbatch. Perhaps an older actor will share the role with him, which I would suspect would make more sense. Rumours are also rife that Twilight star Robert Pattinson will also star in the film. He seems a bit too old to be playing Cumberbatch’s 21 year-old son so again I’m interested to hear more about this and other casting news. The other key component will be the location for filming, as the film will need to convincingly resemble the treacherous Amazon jungle and some of the awful afflictions which the explorers faced (whether disease, insect poisonings or simply starvation). It certainly will no doubt be a gruelling experience for those involved.
I throughly enjoyed this book. David Grann writes in a clear style, but one that also wonderfully brings the past and these historical figures to life so vividly. I found it incredibly fascinating to learn about a part of history that I knew almost nothing about before and would certainly recommend it to others. Due to its subject, the book will appeal to readers of non-fiction, but due to Grann’s style and structure it is equally enjoyable for people like me who tend to read more fiction. I’m also sure many film fans (and Cumberbatch fans) will no doubt be curious to delve in to Fawcett and Grann’s world in preparation for the release of the film. I’m confident everyone who reads it will be glad that they did.
The Lost City of Z by David Grann is available at all the usual book sellers.