Douglas Preston’s new book is part memoir, part adventure, all thrills. The tale concerns a 500-year-old mystery in the heart of Honduras. For half a millennium, rumors have existed of the ruins of an ancient civilization hidden beneath the rain-forest, named the White City or the Lost City of the Monkey God. Preston recounts the stories of the explorers – mainly charlatans – who searched for it, and the legendary curse that stymies them all. In 2015 he lands a writing gig with an expedition to Mosquitia, in the Honduran rain-forest, and witnesses an astonishing discovery. This book tells the story.
The episodes in the jungle that form the meat of the book are extraordinary. Preston, a humble yet intrepid guide, captures his wonder at being a part of the expedition. He marvels at the beauty of untouched nature while recognizing that his team is defiling its innocence. He even grows to enjoy the roar of the howler monkeys that wake him every morning.
The Lost City of the Monkey God straddles the fields of archaeology, anthropology, and adventure travel, but much of the pleasure lies in the characters encountered. Preston has written over a dozen thrillers, but I doubt he’s invented more colorful characters than this band of merry (con)men: fraudsters, bullies, stoics, and a relentless but principled archaeology professor with a dash of Indiana Jones. The largest of the characters (in both senses) is an obese, gun-toting, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing, foul-mouthed American fixer, who sadly doesn’t live to see the biggest discoveries. I also enjoyed reading about the gruff British ex-SAS soldiers whose only remit is to keep everyone alive. Early on, one of them traps and decapitates a six-foot snake as if he’s shelling a peanut.
Besides the characters and the gripping narrative, the book includes all kinds of fascinating information: histories of indigenous tribes; the ethics of excavation; doing business with the Honduran government; negotiating the backstabbing world of academic anthropology; and how to stay alive in a jungle that wants you dead.
The jungle, of course, is another central character. The vast green canopy hiding its treasures is magnificent, but its dangers abound: jaguars, mosquitoes, flash floods, and, scariest of all, the fer-de-lance, a vicious, venomous snake. But in the end, it isn’t the biggest bogeyman that gets them; it’s the smallest: a parasite.
After protracted discussions about whether to remove artifacts from the site or not, the explorers bring home nothing but a tropical disease. I’d never heard of it, but it’s been around since the time of the dinosaurs, and it’s killed millions. Oh, and it’s incurable.
A long section in the second half of the book describes with chilling precision exactly what the leishmaniasis parasite can do to your body. (I guarantee you’ll never look at a sandfly bite in the same way again.) While undergoing treatment, Preston is cool enough to step back and examine how this parasite has affected the world, decimating communities, horrifying conquistadors, and generating profound indifference in the American pharmaceutical industry (the parasite mainly affects poor, brown people). Remarkably, Preston later returns to the jungle to complete his story.
The Lost City of the Monkey God is a page-turner. It’s beautifully written, thrilling and harrowing. What struck me most is that this is a deeply moral book. Preston’s insights always begin with ethics. From his observations on the catastrophe of colonialism to the havoc wrought by pandemics, he is consistently on the side of the angels, and this tremendous book rings with truths that will outlive us all.