A hundred pages into The Lost City of the Monkey God, and anyone who sits at a desk for a living will start questioning her life choices.
While corporate America calculates and files and types, there is someone right now earning a paycheck by tramping around a Mesoamerican rain forest, interacting with curious tapirs and taking photos that would ensure virility on social media. Douglas Preston is one of those seemingly enviable people, but don’t worry — by the time you near the end of his new book, you’ll be appreciating your day job again.
A novelist who has also written for National Geographic, Smithsonian and other chronicles of natural history, Preston has traveled to exhilarating places, but at a cost he makes clear in The Lost City of the Monkey God. The book is the long version of a short version that’s been told elsewhere, of how in 2015 a team led by a documentary filmmaker was able to accomplish what others have tried and failed to do over centuries: uncover the truth about Ciudad Blanca, or the White City, a legendary ruin in a region of Honduras called La Mosquitia.
Yeah. Not exactly the name of a place you’d want to go to on your honeymoon.
Mosquitoes, however, are but the start of it. The eastern tip of Honduras, inaccessible to anyone not carrying a machete, is a thick jungle that teems with vipers and jaguars, and, as Preston and half his team find out, something else equally deadly, though surprisingly so: sand flies that carry a skin-eating disease.
The journey is not for the faint of heart, nor the devoid of technology. Finding the remains of the ancient civilization, known to locals as the “Lost City of the Monkey God,” appeared impossible until the development of lidar, light detection and ranging, a technology that uses lasers to map territory from an aircraft. By using lidar in 2012, Preston’s team was able to do something previous treasure-hunters and archeologists couldn’t: locate with precision areas concealed in a thick forest that appeared to have once been inhabited by humans.
This is something that New Englander Theodore Morde could have used when he tried to find the White City in 1940. Morde, a flashy journalist from New Bedford, Massachusetts, made worldwide headlines after he returned from a four-month expedition to Honduras and announced that he had found the lost city in an area rich with gold, silver and platinum deposits. Fourteen years later he killed himself, having never returned to the site or revealed its location. The journey fueled popular interest in the legend, making it somewhat of a holy grail for archeologists.
Preston solved this anterior mystery last year when he obtained copies of Morde’s journals and discovered that the whole thing had been a hoax. How he came to learn this — and what Morde was actually doing in Honduras — is one of the interesting sub-plots of the story, as is the role a Boston fruit company founded in 1885 played in the complicated history of Honduras. (It’s also connected to the origin of the phrase “banana republic.”)
Preston’s account of how Americans came to be enthralled with an ancient city whose existence was still very much in doubt is engrossing, but slows to dullness on occasion with the intricacies of Honduras political history. The dialogue he offers — while no doubt authentic, given the generous dosing of expletives — feels stilted at times, even cringeworthy, as when someone tells Preston not to reveal something they said, and he not only includes it, but includes their requests not to print it.
For all the celebration over the team’s findings, some people will wonder why so much money and time was spent (and lives nearly lost) to find some crude statuary and moss-encrusted broken pots. It’s clearly a win for Honduras, which has gained an unknown chapter of its history and new lure for tourists, thanks to a cadre of intrepid Americans. Archeology as a profession benefits as well.
For most of us, however, the lone benefit is this story, which catapults the reader into an almost unfathomable past and a present that is equally hard to conceive.
Like hacking one’s way through the world’s deepest jungle, reading this book requires some mental effort to keep up if you’re not a student of Central America or archeology. But it is a worthy antidote to the silly survival reality shows, the Naked and Afraids, in which beautiful people endure temporary hardships so they can be famous. Getting to what’s now called La Ciudad del Jaguar — the City of the Jaguar — required not only clothes but snake gaiters, and the stories Preston tells are not salacious, but important.
B — Jennifer Graham