In Other Words
The Lost City of the Monkey God by Douglas Preston
The romance of archaeological discovery is the stuff of dusty historical accounts, adventure films, and novels. It springs from exotic locations, ancient treasures, and mysteriously effective curses on those who would disturb the dead. These clichés figure in Douglas Preston’s intriguing account of efforts to locate a lost city in the mountainous Mosquita rainforest of Honduras. Treasure and curses are only part of the true story. The jungle where legend suggested a vast city once existed is dense and crawling with poisonous snakes, biting “bullet” ants, and stealthy jaguars. Drug cartels complicate entrance to the mountains and looters are a constant threat — and then there are bureaucratic obstacles, political correctness, and vicious professional rivalries to deal with. Some of Preston’s book will have you thinking of Indiana Jones. One of the team’s more dashing characters wears a hat like Indy’s and tells how he once dropped into a chamber filled with valuable artifacts protected by spiders, scorpions, and snakes, much like what happens in Raiders of the
Lost Ark. The actor Harrison Ford, as vice chairman of Conservation International, even gets a mention.
Preston, a veteran of fiction thrillers (the Agent Pendergast and Gideon Crew series with Lincoln Child) as well as nonfiction accounts of crime (The Monster of Florence) and exploration (Cities of Gold: A Journey Across the American Southwest), is a savvy enough writer to bring out the suspense from the less-sexy complications of modern exploration while also letting the adventure speak for itself. Historic, cultural, and medical background pace the excitement, while environmental degradation is a creeping menace. The economical and political history of Honduras becomes integral to the narrative, especially after the Honduran president gets involved.
Early on, Preston admits that the promise of lost civilizations attracted him less to the story than the technology the effort would use to locate it. The thick jungle canopy in El Mosquita complicated seeing any sign of the site — mounds, walls, and exposed stone — from the air. It also made accurate ground mapping impossible. Dating back to 1940, more than one expedition had announced that it discovered the fabled White City, only to lose it again. Cue the lasers. Preston, in his role as National
Geographic reporter, meets Ron Blom, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist credited with using satellite imaging to discover the lost city of Ubar in the Arabian Desert. Blom had used advanced flyover radar to locate temples in the jungle of Cambodia, and he tells Preston of an upcoming effort to locate a potential major site in the Americas. He won’t say any more than that. But the sleuth in Preston takes over, and it doesn’t take long for him to discover stories of the White City and the monkey god, rumored since the time of the conquistadors to be hidden deep in Honduras. Blom wants to chase the legend utilizing a new technology known as Light Detection and Ranging system, or lidar, that can penetrate the jungle canopy and reveal structures in the earth.
Also involved is a man obsessed with the White City, Steve Elkins, who’d spent 20 years searching unsuccessfully for it. Elkins raises money for the expedition, enlisting a filmmaker, among others, to join Blom’s effort. Preston comes along on assignment from National Geographic. In a decided meeting of low and high technologies, the team loads the bulky lidar unit into an old Cessna streaked from oil leaks and surveillance missions over the target area. Images taken during the flyovers reveal extensive archaeological features, and the group returns armed with computer-generated maps and sophisticated GPS readings to “ground-truth” their discovery. The ground team includes a “fixer” with experience in drug smuggling and artifact looting, and a British special forces expert in jungle survival and warfare. The Honduran government provides a unit of indigenous soldiers to protect the explorers and the sites. On the first night in camp, the appearance of a large and deadly poisonous snake drives home the warnings that this jungle is the most dangerous place on earth.
Snakes, it turns out, aren’t the biggest problem. The most suspenseful part of the book is not whether the team will escape the jungle alive, it’s whether or not they will survive what they bring home. The curse comes in the form of a single-cell parasite transmitted to humans in sand fly bites. The parasite feeds around the bite and eventually migrates to the sufferer’s nose where, as Preston describes it, the fly leaves “a giant weeping sore where the face used to be.” When the men began to report infections — Preston breaks out in mouth sores — the National Institutes of Health steps in. Cures are as dangerous as the parasite, and recovery is uncertain. Also fierce are the attacks on the expedition’s method of exploration, along with the ethics concerned with excavations done on foreign and indigenous lands. Preston’s achievement here is to inform us of the less glamorous aspects of archaeology while not losing any of discovery’s romance. The Lost City of the Monkey God is an adventure in all its aspects. Indiana Jones had it easy compared to this. — Bill Kohlhaase
Douglas Preston reads from “The Lost City of the Monkey God” at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 26, at Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226.