Sunday, August 22, 2010
The Lost City of Z by David Grann
It's been a looong time since I've posted on Age of Empire, but I've got a very good excuse: I'm in the jungle. Yep, my lifelong love for tales of adventure in tropical climates and my education in zoology have finally conspired to land me a temporary position working in a small town in the steaming jungles of Central America. I think it's fair to say that my being here probably owes as much to Conan Doyle as it does to Wallace and Darwin- but there's at least one more figure there, lurking at the fringes of my subconscious, who should be named- Colonel Percy Fawcett.
Remember when you were a kid, and you borrowed the same book out of the library time and time again? Well, I recall the public library in Cork City serving me well in that regard, as back in the early 90's, I was consumed by a particular book about monsters. I used to borrow it every week for about a year. I've scoured the net for any info about this tome, but so far I've come to naught. I recall that the cover had a black border, with Monsters written on it in a bloody font, and a painted image of a sea serpent menacing a small boat. Man, there was so much good stuff in that book- my first introduction to the Loch Ness Monster, the Thugee cult, detailed analyses about more obscure monsters such as the Great Grey Man of Ben MacDhui, and of course, traumatising painted images of everything. But this book was also my earliest introduction to one Percy Fawcett.
In Monsters, or whatever it was called, I learned that Europeans sometimes headed into jungles wearing khaki and pith helmets to have Adventures. And Fawcett had the best adventures of them all, for he fought giant snakes while he was at it. The book recounted how an enormous diamond shaped head rose out of the river as Fawcett and his party were canoeing through the jungle. Fawcett emptied his machine gun clip and the enormous snake fell dead. The men guessed the snake to be at at sixty feet, though they had no measuring equipment, and this figure was never taken seriously by the scientific community at home. Somehow, the snake was still alive, and when it began writhing again, they had to scarper. Because they had no evidence, Fawcett became something of a laughing stock for this claim (one he never backed down on, either). This story lodged in my mind next to an early scene in The Lost World, where Professor Challenger loses all evidence of the lost plateau when his canoe tips over, and is unable to prove his findings when he returns to England. The frustration of it all! I'll never forget the black-and-white drawing in Monsters of Fawcett, a steriotypical Victorian explorer, emerging from the jungle and pumping lead into a terrifyingly thick, hooded (unlikely, for an anaconda) serpent towering over him. Man, I wish I could find that book again.
In any case, I was recently lucky enough to come into possession of a book-length rumination of Fawcett's life: The Lost City of Z. And if in my own head Fawcett has always hovered between fact and fiction, what with his Indiana Jones-like career, Professor Challenger-like personality, and larger-than-life tall tales, well in truth that is exactly where he belongs. Grann covers Fawcett's early years in stiff Victorian boarding schools, his military career and early archaeological discoveries in Ceylon, and his first descent into the jungles of South America. Originally feted as a British hero, 'the Livingstone of South America', Fawcett became more and more unstable as he became obsessed with exploring some of the most hostile terrain on earth, eventually being consumed by occult theories. By the time he disappeared forever into the Matto Grosso region of the Amazon while searching for the mythical city of Z in 1925, he had already endured ostracisation by the scientific community.
One point of interest I noted from an in-depth look at Fawcett's life was just how enmeshed he was with the kind of Imperialist adventure fiction that mirrored the realities of his life. Upon returning from his 1911 expedition, he gave a talk in London that was attended by Conan Doyle. When he spoke of the huge, flat-topped plateaus of the jungle, Doyle seized on the idea for his then-nascent dinosaur novel. The two became friends, and corresponded often by letters. The character of John Roxton from The Lost World owes at least as much to Fawcett as he does to Roger Casement. After the First World War, in which he served at the Somme, Fawcett seems to have had a similar breakdown to Doyle. Having seen the utmost of the horrors that man can do to man, both became disenchanted with material things, and turned to spiritualism and the occult for condolence, which probably deepened their friendship. This did not go down too well with the Royal Geographical Society, the austere scientific establishment that had funded Fawcett's expeditions in the past. It was this interest in the occult that eventually led to Fawcett's mania to discover Z.
Incredibly, Fawcett was also friendly with that other great Imperialist writer and inventor of the 'Lost Race' adventure (of which Fawcett was eventually to re-enact in real-life), H. R. Haggard. When Fawcett finally did disappear into the 'green hell' for good, he did so carrying a mysterious stone idol that Haggard has given him. Fawcett believed that it was evidence of a sophisticated civilization existing in the Matto Grosso.
Also interesting is the matter of Fawcett's brother, Edward Douglas Fawcett. An escapee from the stiff-collar world of Victorian high society, Edward became an early convert to Buddhism, and eventually occultism, long before his brother Percy showed much interest. He co-wrote books with the famous Madame Blavatsky, the founder of theosophy, and before his brother left England, he was penning Jules Verne-ian adventure fiction such as Swallowed By An Earthquake, which features living dinosaurs, and The Secret of the Desert, in which a world-famous British adventurer disappears in a remote Arabian desert and has to be rescued (good luck finding this book anywhere, but I love that cover). Eerily prescient. It never fails to amaze me just how small the Victorian world really was, and how many amazing people, each fascinating in their own right, knew or influenced one another.
Maybe the biggest character besides Fawcett in this story is the jungle itself, the 'green hell'. Having been to see a little of it myself, I can confirm Fawcett's experiences that it's one of the toughest places on Earth that man ekes out an existence. The climate, the insects and animals all conspire to make it a beautiful but difficult place to be to all but the most stubborn of men- and Fawcett was nothing if not stubborn.