Monday, March 23, 2009

"The Lost City of Z" by David Grann--disappointing

The Lost City of Z is a book by a New Yorker author about an adventurer named Fawcett who went in search of El Dorado, the fabled city of gold in South America, in the 1920s and was never heard from again. Fawcett was an experienced explorer and had made major expeditions into the Amazon rainforest. David Grann tries to tell the story and provide a hook, something that will interest readers, namely that he has found a secret diary that has accurate longitude and latitude coordinates for Fawcett's last major stopping point before he disappeared. Misleading coordinates had been published in a posthumous book on the expedition by Fawcett's son. Grann is going out to find the real Lost City of Z, to succeed where others failed by finding both it and the remains of Fawcett's expedition itself. But wait, after trudging through descriptions of things like Fawcett's time in Morocco and in his service during World War I, back and forth with his rivalry with Dr. Rice, we find out in the end that the place Grann went to, where he ended up, weren't obscure places to folks who had been trying to find Fawcett and Z. Instead, without the benefit of the now revealed secret coordinates, enough explorers were able to find the first town and ask if the folks there had seen Fawcett that the sole surviving witness to his coming through asked them who he was since all these people were looking for him?

That town is named Bakairí Post.

Then, going further into the Amazon they reach another city far away from the original coordinates given called Kalapalos, but here too Grann recounts that the ground had already been plowed: the Kalapalos Indians were wary of talking to him before they knew he wasn't a relative because they'd been accused of killing Fawcett before and feared revenge killings. Not only that but a Brazilian had found the village, traveled to it, and had found bones he claimed were Fawcett's, and had announced it to the world and gotten publicity for it. So, no real advancement there.

Finally, Grann goes to a village called Kuikuro to meet an archeologist named Michael Heckenberger. Here he comes to the end of his journey. I'm not going to give away the punch line, but...it so happens that this same village is where a recent Brazilian team setting out to find 'Z' had been stopped and abducted by Indians. They managed to get out of it, but it's not like no one had thought of this location before. It's not like Grann doesn't know: he tells us this in chapter 2.

The book itself is poorly organized, switching between Grann, Fawcett, Fawcett's rivals, and general background with a predictable regularity that doesn't correspond with any discernible need to do so. Chapters look like they were chopped up and resorted, with padding about pointless details of Fawcett's civilian life thrown in to round things out.

The book 1491 is relied on really heavily, so heavily in fact that certain passages are pretty much lifted from it wholesale. This is not such an earth shaking accusation, actually, because 1491's author Charles Mann provided a blurb on the back cover. Obviously he's ok with it.

Overall, this is a case of a book being written that's much longer than the subject actually warrants. I don't want to know the details about Fawcett's rivalries; he's too colorless of a man for me to really care. Instead I want to know about his expedition.
Also, and perhaps most frustratingly since I've read at least one story by Grann in the New Yorker, the book is popular non-fiction, but is written without an understanding of what makes popular non-fiction work. Popular non-fiction may not quote Kant but it tends to be well organized and well written, to flow well and to make sense. "Lost City of Z" as a whole isn't and doesn't.

*on edit: I can't really whip myself into a froth mouthed frenzy over this book. Truth be told, I think that the problems with it are more the result of extreme sloppiness than anything else.

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