In Other Words

The Lost City of the Mon­key God by Dou­glas Pre­ston

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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.

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