At the rate rain forests are being decimated for our lust for beef, it seems amazing that there are any unexplored regions left at all. That’s what makes Douglas Preston’s account of visiting the fabled Ciudad Blanco, a lost Honduran city, so compelling. Like most intelligent people, Preston is ambivalent about the discovery he chronicled. The pristine jungle he encountered had to be cleared, at least in part, to allow for exploration of a lost civilization. But what an adventure it was! The danger of drug lords, a volatile government, large poisonous snakes, and ruins discovered by lidar combine in a true tale of danger and fascination. As with Rudolf Otto’s description of the holy, this is something that fascinates and terrifies simultaneously. And it’s controversial.
The Lost City of the Monkey God crosses several boundaries. It discusses not only “Indiana Jones”-style archaeology, it involves one of the last unexplored places on earth. It doesn’t sugar-coat the genocide initiated by Europeans—in fact, Preston describes some of the diseases in graphic detail—and he doesn’t excuse the guilt. The book also addresses global warming and the possibilities of a global pandemic (the book was published in 2017). Preston contracted Leishmaniasis while in the jungle and notes that as the globe warms up, it is making its way north. The descriptions aren’t for the faint of heart, nor are his descriptions of the politics of treatment. The first part of the book, describing the people and the set up of the base-camp show Preston’s chops as a thriller writer. His encounter with a fer-de-lance had me checking the floor in the dark when I got up in the morning.
The civilization of the city, now known by the more respectable title City of the Jaguar, was unknown. It was not Mayan. The city was likely abandoned because of disease brought to the Americas by Europeans. Even so, his description of the society in which the ruling classes keep their power by displaying their own sanctity that the average person doesn’t question rang true. Societies from the beginning have used that playbook. Convince people that the gods (or God) has revealed certain things that they (the ruling class) understand, and everyone else falls in line. We see it even now as the messianic Trump following falls for it yet again. This is a quick read, written much alike a thriller. A few years ago I read Preston’s engaging Dinosaurs in the Attic. I’m thinking now that some of his thrillers should also be on my list.