There is something about Victorian England that I find fascinating. It isn't the absence of penicillin, which I find horrible, nor the ready presence of racism and racial biology, nor is it the other elements of the bad old days that we thankfully have more-or-less left behind us. It is, for lack of better, the sense of a world in rapid transition and a time of discoveries: The invention of the radio, industrialization, and, something which this book deals in, the filling in of the last blank spots on the map. I know that scientific discovery is proceeding at an even higher pace today, but hearing about electron volts from the LHC doesn't quite excite me.
Or maybe I just haven't read a good enough book about it. Grann is an excellent author and manages to convey a great sense of immediacy by adriotly mixing the words of the explorers themselves with his own narrative. When I read this book, I couldn't help but feeling an urgency to find the City of Z, the lost city that Colonel Percy Fawcett Harrison believed was somewhere in the Amazon rainforest. That urgency was certainly felt by Fawcett, as told by his notes.
The book is built on two parallell narratives. In one, we follow Fawcett on his many gruelling expeditions in the Amazon, culminating in the expedition from which neither he nor any of his party returned. The other narrative follows Grann's quest to piece together the life of Fawcett and the events leading up to the fatal expedition. The two threads come together beautifully in the end, much thanks to the athropologist Michael Heckenberger, in which must be the most satisfying resolution to this book that can be imagined. While there certainly isn't complete consensus on the thesis promoted by Grann, he makes a very good case, and I immediately started reading everything I could find on the web about it. At the moment there isn't much beyond the small circle of scientists directly involved in the research, but in due time I'm sure we'll have to revise not just a few books.
The book doesn't simply deal with Fawcett and his travels, but also describes the history of the European presence in the Amazon and South America in general. This provides great context to the story and even with knowledge of the conquest of the Americas, one is shocked by the savagery visited upon the native population first by the European invaders, second by the rubber barons and third by well-armed fortune seekers. (It is impossible to not see the parallells between the Congo described in Heart of Darkness[a] and the Amazon described here. Both are places where law and civilization seem to evaporate in the contact between Europeans and the native population, creating a state of utter inhuman anarchy.) The Victorian view of colonization - the white man's burden[b] - is contrasted with what kind of culture the white man really did spread.