High-tech military equipment, a flesh eating disease, and ancient curses collide in this unapologetically modern twist on the gentleman-explorer narrative. Most books about white men exploring the jungle harken back to the grainy black-and-white days of Theodore Rosevelt or Queen Victoria but Douglas Preston’s trek in The Lost City of the Monkey God is anchored firmly in the present. The discovery* of the City of the Jaguar, formerly known as La Ciudad Blanca or The White City, in the perilous Mosquitia region of Honduras has been a thoroughly modern undertaking. Major archaeological work at the site started in 2012 and is ongoing. Preston, who was hired to report on the expedition for National Geographic and the New Yorker, joined a small team funded by a documentary filmmaker. The team included renowned archeologists, anthropologists, scientists, private ex-military survivalists, and Honduran spec-ops trained in jungle survival.
The best non-fiction authors build a foundation for their narrative that is both educational and entertaining to hook the reader and get them invested in their story. Preston does this well in Lost City; he lays the groundwork of Honduran history, from the pre-Columbian to the present. Instead announcing the book’s thesis right away, he waits until the reader is fully adrenalized on the excitement of tiny helicopters perilously landing in the dense jungle before seamlessly connecting this incredible adventure to the 500 years long history of violent colonial oppression Honduras has endured. The history of Central America, and Honduras is no exception, is wildly complicated and nuanced. Preston’s presentation is that of a seasoned journalist and best-selling novelist: he’s avoids the quagmire of information in favor of a fluid, but factual, story. He does a good job of acknowledging the criticisms of the expedition and why, in his view, though the morality of any 21st century “exploration” is complicated, it is also necessary in the case of the City of the Jaguar.
I’m a fan of these real-life-adventure-trekking books but Lost City took me by surprise because it seemed to be wrapping up too soon. The book takes an unexpected turn after Preston returns from the jungle — where most of these books end — and he launches into his harrowing account of a leishmaniasis diagnosis. Suffered by half of the expedition team, through the travails of the leishmania parasite’s victims, you feel Preston’s own experience on a very personal level. Clearly, this author has been traumatized by a disease that likewise terrified ancient cultures from the Middle East to the Andes. As if underscoring the last chapters with aggressive strokes of a bold-tip marker, Preston drives home what has been the thesis of Lost City all along: if we don’t start valuing the history, cultures, and lives of the people so long subjugated by colonial powers and if we don’t start protecting the environment, we are all doomed.
The Lost City of the Monkey God is a very well written modern adventure book about a real expedition into the jungle. There are poisonous snakes, curses, grand archaeological discoveries, terrifying feats of aviation, corrupt governments, and tag-a-long journalists (our Everyman). Preston is a talented writer who brings the entire experience to life, while responsibly building on a layer of facts and acknowledging the problematic nature inherent in such an endeavor. I recommend this book for those who enjoyed The Lost City of Z by David Grann, Erik Larson’s books, adventure stories, pre-Columbian history, and those who enjoy the fascinating stories in National Geographic.
*Discovery is a divisive term when applied to places that were known to indigenous people long before Europeans or agents of conquest laid eyes on or set foot in those places. The people of Honduras, as Preston explains in the books, especially those from the areas in and around Mosquitia, knew where The White City was supposed to be and therefore did not need to be “discovered” by colonizers.