At first glance, The Lost City of the Monkey God quite successfully disguises itself as an adventure book – reminiscent of Indiana Jones and Treasure Island; a story about men venturing off into the jungle to uncover a hidden or forgotten treasure and becoming rich and famous in doing so.
Even the cover – depicting a wild jungle that fades into black – has a thrilling air of mystery about it.
But this book isn’t about adventure – at least not at its core.
The Lost City of the Monkey God is the almost unbelievable true story of a group of filmmakers, scientists, writers, photographers, and military veterans who make a rather far-fetched attempt to discover a mythologized lost city in the Honduran jungle.
Through years of storytelling and false claims of discovery, the lost city has become a place of legend, referred to by many as “La Ciudada Blanca” (The White City) or the “Lost City of the Monkey God”.
Preston, a well-known and very successful writer and journalist, joined a recent expedition to find the city as a correspondent for National Geographic. Despite the dangers – infectious disease, deadly snakes, jaguars, drug lords, and quick sand – he fully committed to writing about the search for the city and its possible subsequent excavation.
To be honest, I didn’t expect this book to amount to much. I don’t mean that in the way it probably sounds. I genuinely didn’t believe that the group would find a lost city. It seemed rather far-fetched that in the 2010s, with technological advancement having reached the level that it has, that there could possibly be a whole city that we don’t know about. But as Preston described the social circumstances, climate, and geography of Honduras, it started to seem a bit more plausible that a city – or a civilization – could be hiding way in Mosquitia, a region of tropical rainforest.
I won’t give too many spoilers about what happens in the book. I think the real fun reading it is how it changes from being a story of potential discovery to being one of genuine introspective thought and history. Preston takes advantage of the exciting expedition to study the history of Honduras and its people, and contextualize what may have caused a whole civilization to disappear, leaving behind a beautiful and fully-function city.
If you’re unfamiliar with Douglas Preston, I encourage you to read his other works. I have a particular fondness for his true crime book The Monster of Florence. He truly immerses himself in the stories he writes, and I think he is one of the greatest long-form journalists of his generation. He also has a brother, Richard Preston, who has written some of the best work on infectious disease that I have ever read. They are quite the impressive duo. I also read that they have another brother who is a doctor. What a lazy family.
My favourite part of the book, and perhaps the most horrifying and unexpected, comes roughly two thirds of the way in. And, surprisingly, it is not about adventure or discovery, but rather about health, climate change, genocide, and the divide between the Old World and New World as well as the First World and Third World.
Preston has written a beautiful, detailed account of a dedicated group of people who wanted to uncover one of the great legends of South America, but also a searing and frightening critique of colonization and its lingering effects.
The Lost City of the Monkey God left me wondering not what cultures and civilizations have come before me, but instead what lies ahead for our species – and all of the other species on Earth. History isn’t just about finding out what happened in the past, it’s about applying past knowledge to present times and figuring out how to avoid disaster and collapse in the future.
I know this review may make the book sound a little intimidating, but like any great journalist and writer, Preston turns complicated subject matter into an accessible and riveting story. It’s definitely the kind of book that requires a lot of attention to detail, but if you find a quiet space to read, it will draw you right in to the excitement, fear, and history of those in Honduras.
If you liked this you might also like:
- The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston
- The Demon in the Freezer and The Hot Zone by Richard Preston
- The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe