Mad Dreams in the Amazon

R. de Montet-Guerin
Percy Fawcett in 1911, the year of his fourth major Amazon expedition; from David Grann’s The Lost City of Z

As Fawcett and his small team—including his twenty-one-year-old son and his son’s closest friend—advanced into the jungles of Mato Grosso, they documented their adventures by sending dispatches to an increasingly enthralled public using Indian messengers. About four months into the journey, however, as they entered a region known to be populated by hostile Indian tribes, the missives abruptly ceased. Fawcett and his party vanished without a trace.

Their disappearance has been an unsolved mystery ever since. Had Fawcett and his companions been murdered by Indians? Had they renounced their ties to civilization and “gone native”? Evelyn Waugh was inspired by Fawcett’s story to write the blackly comic ending to his novel A Handful of Dust, in which the hero, Tony Last, ends up a captive in the Amazon, forced to read Dickens to a maniac for the rest of his life. Many later followed Fawcett’s footsteps—occasionally meeting an equally mysterious fate. These included Alfred de Winton, a fifty-two-year-old Hollywood bit-part actor who showed up in Cuiabá, Brazil, in 1934 and announced his determination to find Fawcett. Months later he sent a note out of the jungle saying that he was being held captive by Indians—then he, too, was never seen again.

Most recently, we have David Grann, a New Yorker writer who, while researching the suspicious death of a Sherlock Holmes expert in England in 2004, found a reference by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Fawcett and his magical city. (Conan Doyle used the purported Indian civilization as the inspiration for The Lost World.) Grann became hooked by the mystery surrounding Fawcett’s tale, and by the unresolved debate over Z. “Like others, I suspect, my only impression of the Amazon was of scattered tribes living in the Stone Age,” Grann writes, “a view that derived not only from adventure tales and Hollywood movies but also from scholarly accounts.”

The result of Grann’s labors is The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, the latest of the books about Victorian- and Edwardian-era adventurers battling the elements in forbidding corners of the earth. In The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, recounted the great polar explorer’s ill-starred 1915 Antarctic mission, in which he and his crew spent twenty months stranded on the ice, then a smaller group had to row a twenty-foot boat 850 miles across the storm-tossed ocean to reach rescuers for those who had remained behind.

Grann’s book is part biography, part detective story, and …

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