Book review: Novel recounts discovery of lost city
‘Lost City of the Monkey God,’ by Douglas Preston
“Lost City of the Monkey God” is a riveting, educational and thoroughly entertaining account of the recent discovery of a lost city in the Honduran wilderness, with a Colorado connection.
Douglas Preston begins his novel by introducing the idea of La Mosquitia: an unexplored, uninhabited region of forest, sometimes referred to as “The Gates of Hell.”
Legend has it that, within this thick, uninviting forest, there lies a city carved from gleaming white stone, with gorgeous reliefs chiseled into the rock faces and a large monkey god statue poised dead center, observing the goings on of his city.
Tales of this Xanadu are part of the Honduran identity, an identity that otherwise is often fraught with colonialist agendas or overshadowed by the identities of ancient Hondurans’ famous neighbors, the Maya. By including a history of the early exploratory, treasure-hunting, colonialist voyages that all sought to control Honduras and the La Mosquitia region, Preston brings into stark relief, at least a small part of, the troubles the country has felt.
A brief history of the early exploration of La Mosquitia feels like an Indiana Jones-style treasure hunt; local legends, mad men raving about curses, white cities beyond the trees and barely decipherable journals found in attics were the main sources of information anybody had about Cuidad Blanca, the White City.
The introduction of Lidar imaging, however, transforms the search for the White City from a treasure hunt to an academically verified archaeological search. Two sites are identified — T1 and T2.
T1 is singled out for on-the-ground survey efforts. Here, Preston artfully explains how the beauty of the jungle by no means undercuts its harshness, and punctuates his point by telling the story of a deadly fer-de-lance snake the expedition encountered on its first night in camp.
Another exciting part of this story is the enthusiasm of the Honduran government about the project. The Honduran government has changed hands more than once during the search for Cuidad Blanca, but seeminglyly always takes an interest in the search, which again, highlights the desire for a national identity. The inclusion of local people and resources made the discovery and survey of T1 possible.
As exciting as the search and excavation are, some of the real intrigue begins after the initial voyage. When one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the 21st century is put into a semblance of context, great conclusions are drawn, and Preston does a fantastic job of highlighting how the storied curse of Cuidad Blanca may have come to be. He also expands on how journeys tend to stay with a person, in one way or another, for a lifetime. Taking a central role is also the pathological history of the New World in relation to its colonial past.
As for the connection to Colorado, the principle archaeologist for the project was Chris Fisher, a professor at Colorado State University, who played a massive role in the telling of this story.
Anyone with a sense of adventure, wonder or curiosity should read this book. Appropriate for everyone, it is a thrilling and colorful narrative that will spark amazement in anyone who opens its pages.
This book is available at Off the Beaten Path and Bud Werner Memorial Library.
Jenna Meier-Bilbo is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path.
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