As a reporter, I nearly always write about the living: people I can talk to, spend time with, accompany on their adventures. Even when a subject refuses to speak with me, or has recently passed away, there are people from his or her world who are alive and can fill my notebooks with anecdotes and descriptions. But in writing my first book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, about the legendary British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett, I faced an obstacle I had never confronted: a dead subject — indeed, a subject who had vanished more than 80 years earlier.
Fawcett was the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into blank spots on the map with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose. After nearly two decades of exploring the Amazon, he had concluded that the world's largest jungle concealed an ancient kingdom, which he had named, simply, the City of Z. Captivating the imagination of millions around the world, Fawcett set out in 1925 with his 21-year-old son and his son's best friend to find the remnants of this ancient kingdom. Then Fawcett and his party disappeared without a trace.
How could I piece together not only the mystery of Fawcett's death, but also the mystery of his life? Who would I talk to?
The effort to reconstruct Fawcett's biography — from his time as a British secret agent to his final fateful expedition — began a three-year quest unlike any I had ever attempted. It was a journey that snaked through dusty archives in dimly lit library basements and ended deep in the Amazon jungle. Each clue led to another and another, including the last crumpled dispatches that Fawcett sent out of the jungle in the hands of Indian runners.
But two discoveries, in particular, proved invaluable. The first occurred in Cardiff, Wales, where I tracked down one of Fawcett's grandchildren, Rolette de Montet-Guerin. She was a petite, energetic woman in her 50s, with short black hair and glasses, who referred affectionately to her grandfather by his initials, P.H.F. ("That's what my mum and everyone in the family always called him.") As we chatted, she said,"When someone disappears, it's not like an ordinary death. There is no closure."
She paused for a long time, as if trying to make up her mind about something. Then she said, "You really want to find out what happened to my grandfather?"
"Yes. If it's possible."
"I want to show you something."
She led me into a back room and opened a large wooden trunk. Inside were several leather-bound books. Their covers were worn and tattered, their bindings breaking apart. Some were held together only by strings, tied in bows.
"What are they?" I asked.
"P.H.F.'s diaries and logbooks." She handed them to me. "You can look through them, but you must guard them carefully."
I opened one of them, marked 1909. The cover left a black stain on my fingertips — a mixture, I imagined, of Victorian dust and jungle mud. The pages almost fell out when I turned them, and I held them gingerly between my index finger and thumb. Recognizing Fawcett's microscopic handwriting, I felt a strange sensation. Here was something that Fawcett had also held, something that contained his most private thoughts, and which few had ever seen.The writer Janet Malcolm once compared a biographer to a "professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away."
I sat down on the couch. There was a book for almost all his expeditions during the early 20th century, leading up to his fateful 1925 search for "Z." Fawcett had obviously carried a diary on each trip, jotting down observations. Many of them were replete with maps and surveying calculations. On the inside covers were the poems he had copied down in order to read in the jungle when he was alone and desperate. One seemed meant for his wife, Nina:
Oh love, my love! Have all your will — I am yours to the end;
Many of the diaries were filled with the mundane, from someone with no expectation of history. "9 July...Sleepless night...Much rain and wet through by midday....11 July...Heavy rain from midnight. Reached [camp] on trail, caught fish....17 July...swimming across for balsa." Then, suddenly, a casual remark revealed the harrowing nature of his existence: "Feel very bad...Took 1 [vial] of morphine last night to rest from foot pain. It produced a violent stomachache and had to put finger down throat to relieve."
In later diaries, as he developed his case for the existence of Z, Fawcett made more archeological notations. There were drawings of strange hieroglyphics. The Botocudo Indians, now virtually extinct, had told him a legend of a city "enormously rich in gold — so much so as to blaze like fire." Fawcett added, "It is just conceivable this may be Z."
These written records allowed me to think and see the world as Fawcett had, to experience his anxieties and dreams and daring. They also provided me with a roadmap to Z.
The second critical discovery took place in the jungle. While I was searching for any traces of Fawcett's party and Z, I encountered a tribe of Kalapalo Indians, who many suspected had massacred Fawcett and his companions in 1925. The Kalapalos passed down their history orally. And, to my amazement, they had an account about Fawcett and his men, who were among the first whites, or "Christians," as the Kalapalos called them, that the tribe had ever seen. The oral history was incredibly precise, including even details about the musical instrument that Fawcett carried. Ellen Basso, an anthropologist, translated the account directly from the Kalapalo language, maintaining the epic rhythms of the tribe's oral histories. Here is just a fragment:
One of them remained by himself. While he sang, he played a musical instrument.
His musical instrument worked like this, like this....
He sang and sang.
He put his arm around me this way.
While he was playing we watched the Christians.
While he was playing.
Father and the others.
Then, "I'll have to be going," he said.
Eventually, Fawcett and his men departed, and the Kalapalos could see their campfire in the distance:
"There's the Christians' fire," we said to one another. That was going on as the sun set. The next day as the sun set, again their fire rose up. The following day again, just a little smoke, spread out in the sky. On this day, mbouk, their fire had gone out.... It looked as if the Englishmen's fire was no longer alive, as if it had been put out. "What a shame! Why did he keep insisting they go away?"
After nearly three years of research, aided by such oral and written records, I realized that I had developed a detailed portrait of Fawcett, who was one of the most daring and eccentric explorers ever to set foot in the New World. It was a portrait that benefited from the vantage point of history — seeing someone within his own time as well as from outside it. Of course, there were still small gaps in Fawcett's biography — where he may have stood in a certain moment or what he whispered to himself — that occasionally gnawed at me. Yet one never knows everything about the living either.
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Books mentioned in this post
David Grann is the author of The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession