In a time when most of the world was already conquered and controlled by the "civilized" world, the Amazon remained an enigma. Dense forest, virulent diseases, dangerous animals, and unfriendly tribes meant that no matter how many explorers set out on adventure, the Amazon swallowed them whole.
Grann focuses mostly on the story of Percy Harrison Fawcett, one of the most famous explorers to disappear into the jungle. For centuries, explorers had reported rumours of a vast civilization--a veritable city of gold--deep within the Amazon. Although centuries of failure lent credence to the skeptics who doubted the lost-Atlantis-type tales, Heinrich Schliemann's discovery of Troy in 1868 reawakened belief in the possibility.
Like many before him, Fawcett believed in a "Lost City of Z" (also referred to elsewhere as one of the many El Dorados) deep within the jungle. The book delves into the life of Fawcett himself. For me, the similarity of his personality to that of Emerson from Elizabeth Peters' series was one of the major attractions of the book. Like Emerson, Fawcett was abrupt, demanding, tireless, and blessed with an impressive constitution. He was impatient with his fellow explorers but comparatively respectful of native peoples, going so far as to avoid carrying and displaying weapons. His comments about his disposition are also familiar; like Emerson, he apparently believed himself to be one of the most mild-mannered of men.
Gran intersperses Fawcett's life story with comments and facts about the Amazon, some stories of other explorers, and his own research journey. Personally, I am not fond of this interjection of the self; I read history to learn about historical figures, not to hear about the mundane lives of the historian, no matter how exciting and daring they believe themselves to be. However, I think Gran carried the conceit quite well, and his descriptions of the Amazon and his meeting with Fawcett's family adds dimension to the tale.
My biggest issue with the book is Gran's portrayal of the native peoples. While one expects a strong flavour of xenophobia and imperialism from the people of Fawcett's time, I felt that Gran's narrative also is tinged with such viewpoints. Throughout the book, I felt that Gran viewed the native peoples as alien, as savage, as somehow a "lower form" than the "civilized" Westerners. Even the overall goal, that of finding the lost city of Z, reflects this viewpoint. Gran delves a little into a discussion about "advanced" cultures, and whether the ecological constraints of the Amazon would have prevented the creation of a society sufficiently "advanced" to construct such a city. To me, the whole argument is somewhat ridiculous, because it directly ties "sophistication" to "lots of buildings, streets, and gold." In other words, it seemed to me that Gran subscribed to the belief that for a society to be considered "advanced," it needs to look like a Western one. This is certainly not a new idea--throughout history, it has led to various explorers and missionaries forcing their converts to wear entirely unsuitable clothing and live in quite impractical buildings--but I'm rather disappointed to see a modern writer carry the concept so unquestioningly. I'm not entirely sure how one might measure sociological sophistication--personally, I would tie it to elements such as language, writing, construction of mythos, and the ability for society members to differentiate in career paths--but I'm pretty sure that "honking great European-like city in the middle of the jungle" wouldn't make my list.
Overall, while I had some issues with Grann's apparent acceptance of a rather Victorian point of view, Z made for an interesting and often surprising read.