Obsession, Hope and Glory

Percy Fawcett’s Excellent Adventure

by Sean Murphy

4 September 2009


Look at that guy.

They don’t make them like that anymore. The thing is, they didn’t make them like that then, either. Col. Percy Fawcett was sui generis, supersized. And if he was the first of his kind, he was the last of a kind: the great old-world explorers. By the time Fawcett died (disappearing in the jungles of the Amazon), the world had become a much smaller place.

New Yorker writer David Grann knew he had an ideal subject when he began researching the Fawcett story; he could not have known he was going to become part of the story. The Lost City of Z is the end product of inestimable research and in-the-field reportage, literally.

Like (literally) hundreds before him, Grann inexorably cultivated a compulsion that could only be satisfied by experiencing the action himself. Unlike many other reporters, explorers and thrill-seekers who set off to find Fawcett’s trail (and, inevitably, subsequent fame and fortune for telling their tale), Grann actually made it out alive. And he also found things even he neither expected nor anticipated: no spoilers here, you’ll have to read it to get the scoop.

What Grann came to understand, before ever setting foot in the jungle, was something that no number of books, movies or documentaries could successfully convey. That is, Percy Fawcett was, in every sense of the cliche, very much a man apart. The mere triumph of entering and exiting the Amazon alive was, as many hearty fellows found out by paying the ultimate price, not an inconsiderable achievement. At a time when the North and South Poles were all the rage, one could be forgiven for assuming that the warmer weather, bustling foliage and diverse plant and animal life all afforded a preferable venue for discovery. On the contrary, the ostensibly bountiful tropical haven was in actuality a death trap. Grann quotes Candice Millard from The River Of Doubt, her study of Theodore Roosevelt’s harrowing Amazonian adventure:
The rain forest was not a garden of easy abundance, but precisely the opposite. Its quiet, shaded halls of leafy opulence were not a sanctuary, but rather the greatest natural battlefield anywhere on the planet, hosting an unremitting and remorseless fight for survival that occupied every single one of its inhabitants, every minute of every day.

A few words about those inhabitants. Nevermind the jaguars, anacondas, electric eels, and piranhas. Those things can kill you quickly, if that is how it goes down. The insects, on the other hand, epitomize death by a billion bites. To be certain, they are quite capable of killing you as well, but it’s never quick and it’s always painful. Ever heard of a bug that bites you on the lip, unleashing a parasite that eventually assails your brain two decades later, causing an agonizing breakdown of the body? Neither had I. How about maggots that get hatched inside the skin and crawl around in your arm? (If you kill them they rot and cause infection; you actually have to let them live even as you see–and feel–them coursing through your limbs.) And then there are just the plain old pests that cover your face all hours of the day and night: biting, scratching, burrowing. And all of these agents of pain pale in comparison to the candiru (let’s just put it this way: these things are enough to make you believe there is a God and that He has a sick, unacceptable sense of humor). Oh, and then there are the natives who may kill you with a poisoned arrow, or maybe they will bury you in a hole and cover you with honey so that the bees or ants will turn you into a living lollipop. Or maybe they’ll keep you alive long enough to eat you. In short, these conditions all, to some degree, exist today; to think what it was like to endure any of these obstacles one hundred years ago is…unsettling.

These were the conditions Percy Fawcett not only embraced, but yearned for. This was a man who, at the top of his game, was called away to fight in what they called The Great War. He hunkered down in the muddy trenches and watched the privation and despair and the staggering death count, and still, having survived, longed to return to the jungle. Granted, after World War I it would be understandable to seek distraction or escape virtually anywhere, but for Fawcett, he was miserable after a while if he could not continue his mission. His mission became an obsession, and the difference between Fawcett and almost everyone else is that he had the wherewithal to persevere. Most monomaniacs flame out sooner or later (usually sooner) and even if they don’t get themselves killed, the mental toll from being so singularly focused slows them down.  Fawcett courted death, but he lived for that adventure: this was his essential nature and he did not shun it. Indeed, he understood that being unable to live life on his terms would have killed him in ways more cruel than anything the Amazon was capable of inflicting.

Fawcett was, around the turn of the 20th Century, as close to a rock star as it came in those days. Had he cared about money or the shallow spiritual payoff of established notoriety, he likely would have lived a long life (he may, in fact, have lived forever). But where people all around the world were fascinated with him, he was fascinated by the unknown and unconquered. And by unconquered, it is crucial to point out that he was not interested in human conquest (and even the pirates who would have claimed they were only after treasure could not deny obtaining that bounty necessarily involved eradicating the Indians who possessed it). Fawcett was uninterested in subjugating the “savage” natives, and the practices of complicated Christian conversion or simple slaughter so common at that time repulsed him. Indeed, one of the many secrets of his almost inexplicable success over the years was an instinctive awareness that respect and humility were more powerful weapons than the ones favored (and utilized) by almost every other white man that stepped foot in the jungle.

Certainly, Fawcett knew that if he was able to successfully confirm the existence of “the city of Z”, it would make his fortune and his career. On the other hand, Grann’s reportage makes it abundantly clear that the only magnet pulling him into the dark heart of the Amazon was his insatiable desire to see what others could not find, to know that his intuition was on target. By his own account, he was miserable if unable to continue his work. And if the work was exhilarating and dangerous in equal measure, it was also solitary: Fawcett was blessed with an inhuman constitution, and cursed by having to hire mere mortals to assist him. These unfortunate souls, no matter how ambitious and game, quickly found themselves out of their depth, and the target of Fawcett’s ire when he realized that they could not keep up. In this sense, Fawcett is a truly tragic figure: he was better equipped than anyone else to stalk the improbable; what kept him alive ended up killing him.

And still, one wonders who had a tougher time (it seems a safe bet the unflappable Fawcett would have recoiled at the reading list and research materials Grann required to tell his tale). Fawcett only had to do it; describing his various escapades from the myriad sources must have been its own brand of torture. The bibliography alone has enough texts to overcrowd an empty warehouse. The painstaking process of getting the story straight obliged Grann to employ many more assistants than Fawcett ever used. And Fawcett was the one who lived the tale being told. Conclusion: Fawcett explored so people unlike him didn’t have to. Grann puts all the pieces together so people like us don’t have to. Paying a few bucks for this book seems an almost offensively safe and unencumbered option, albeit one that is enthusiastically recommended.

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