Published:  12:00 AM, 19 February 2017

A novelist scours the Honduran jungle for pre-columbian ruins

THE LOST CITY OF THE MONKEY GOD A True Story by Douglas Preston, Publisher - Grand Central Publishing in January 2017

Brendan I. Koerner rummages the evocations and challenges relates by the writer


The year may still be young, but I would wager a small fortune that Douglas Preston has already written the best snake-decapitation scene of 2017. The passage is nestled midway through "The Lost City of the Monkey God," Preston's account of accompanying an archaeological expedition through the wilds of eastern Honduras.

Shortly after he and his group set up camp in La Mosquitia, a jungled expanse that conceals a trove of pre-Columbian ruins, Preston spots a venomous pit viper next to a hammock. He calls on Andrew Wood, a former British commando who has been hired to keep the expedition's death toll to a minimum, to handle the matter. Wood does so by jabbing at the snake with a forked tree branch, to the snake's clear displeasure.

"As its head lashed back and forth, straining to sink its fangs into Woody's fist, it expelled poison all over the back of his hand, causing his skin to bubble," Preston writes. After he finally gets the better of the fight and manages to lop off the snake's skull, Wood apologizes for failing to clean up the bloody aftermath right away; he explains that he had thought it wise to wash off the venom first, since it was starting to seep into an open wound.

Though I was enthralled by Preston's frenetic depiction of man-on-serpent violence, I also feared it signaled that his latest book was about to take a turn for the trite. Memoirs of jungle adventures too often devolve into lurid catalogs of hardships, as their authors take undue glee in detailing every bug bite, malarial fever and bad cup of instant coffee they've had to endure. But Preston proves too thoughtful an observer and too skilled a storyteller to settle for churning out danger porn. He has instead created something nuanced and sublime: a warm and geeky paean to the revelatory power of archaeology, tempered by notes of regret.

Preston has earned considerable fame as the co-author, with Lincoln Child, of brisk and noirish thrillers like last year's "The Obsidian Chamber." But he has also long maintained a side gig as a magazine writer who specializes in chronicling quests for dinosaur bones, Egyptian tombs and Anasazi relics. While working on one such assignment for National Geographic in 1996, Preston first heard the legend of La Ciudad Blanca (the White City), an abandoned jungle metropolis said to be hidden deep within Mosquitia.

Numerous explorers have sallied forth in search of this alleged archaeological wonder, only to return with empty hands or fantastic lies. One British adventurer named Frederick Mitchell-Hedges, for example, claimed to have stumbled upon the sunken continent of Atlantis while on a failed mission to locate the city in the early 1930s. (Throughout his long and shady career, Mitchell-Hedges also falsely purported to have fought alongside Pancho Villa and to have hunted for sea monsters with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's son.)

The explorer most synonymous with La Ciudad Blanca is Theodore Morde, a Massachusetts-born journalist who made his name covering the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, Morde declared that he'd found the fabled city after a torturous trek through Mosquitia. He described a walled settlement, large enough to have once housed 30,000 people, that was festooned with elaborate carvings of monkeys.

 He refused to reveal the city's location to anyone, including the millionaire oil heir who had financed his trip. Preston contends that Morde kept mum because he had engaged in a grand deception: He had spent all his time in Honduras prospecting for gold rather than looking for the White City as he had promised his patron. (Morde receives a fuller and more forgiving portrait in another recent book, Christopher S. Stewart's "Jungleland.")

Morde's colorful tales may have been bunk, but decades later they helped inspire a cinematographer named Steve Elkins to try to find the White City with the aid of advanced technology. Thanks to some Hollywood wheeling and dealing - an executive producer of the film "Beasts of No Nation" pops up in Preston's narrative - Elkins raised enough money to have a chunk of Mosquitia surveyed with an aircraft-mounted lidar scanner, which uses lasers to detect topographical anomalies. The scans revealed something potentially majestic beneath the jungle canopy: evidence of moldering buildings, plazas and possibly even a ball court.

Preston was not disappointed by what he saw on the 2015 expedition to explore the ruins, though he admits that a layperson might feel otherwise. "The jungle-choked mounds in Mosquitia are, at first glance, not nearly as sexy as the cut-stone temples of the Maya or the intricate gold artwork of the Muisca," he writes. But by letting archaeologists riff on the possible meanings of specific objects, Preston builds a compelling case for the scientific significance of what the expedition unearthed. He takes evident delight, for example, in listening to a Colorado State University professor explain how stone jars rimmed with "triangular-headed humanoid figures" could symbolize "bound captives, ready for sacrifice."

The book's most affecting moments don't center on the ruminations of archaeologists, however, but rather on the otherworldly nature of the jungle - a place that Preston portrays as akin to a sentient creature. He marvels at how the jungle floor undulates with a "greasy, jittering flow" of cockroaches, and he shares his awe at the "chromatic infinities" of the impenetrable flora that has frustrated generations of explorers. And as the great scale of the archaeological site becomes clear, Preston laments that the yearslong process of excavation will inevitably rob Mosquitia of much of its mystique.

"I had the sense that our exploration had diminished it, stripping it of its secrets," he observes upon departing for home. As Adam and Eve can well attest, the pursuit of knowledge is never without its unintended consequences.
For all his curiosity about the Mosquitia ruins, Preston exhibits puzzlingly little interest in Honduras itself.

He appears to have met few ordinary Hondurans during his travels, and the book can occasionally feel clinical as a result. At one point, for example, Preston mentions that a town he stopped in has been plagued by drug-related violence. "However, we were assured that we were in no danger because of our guard of elite Honduran soldiers," he curtly notes, before switching back to discussing his preparations for the jungle.

Preston also seems largely indifferent to the Honduran public's feelings about the ruins, which may or may not be connected to the White City myth; we hear a good deal from the nation's president, who lauds a projected rise in tourism, but not much from anyone of lesser rank who might have more complicated views of what's to come for Mosquitia and its inhabitants.

It is hard to feel anything but sympathy for Preston, however, given that he ended up suffering so grievously for the sake of this book. I won't spoil the nasty means by which the jungle exacted its revenge on the Mosquitia expedition, except to say that I wouldn't blame Preston in the slightest if he chooses to stick to fiction from now on. But let's hope that doesn't end up being the case, for few other writers possess such heartfelt appreciation for the ways in which artifacts can yield the stories of who we are.


The reviewer is a contributing
editor at Wired
www.nytimes.com

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