Years ago, when I was an archaeologist, I learned my favorite concept in the broader field of anthropology, or any field for that matter: “imperialist nostalgia.” It’s the yearning we feel for something we ourselves have conquered or destroyed, a term as obviously applicable to affairs of the heart as it is to the study of lost cultures. The last two books I loved sit at both ends of that spectrum. First, in The Lost City of Z, David Grann retraces the steps of Amazon explorer Percy Fawcett, who ultimately disappeared during his final attempt to find the legendary civilization, long-since eaten by time and vines, known to many as El Dorado but coined by Fawcett simply as “Z.” And in Jose Saramago’s book All the Names, a humble bureaucrat, Senhor Jose, employed in the central registry of births and deaths, embarks on a life-changing search for a woman he has never met.
Grann’s nonfiction and Saramago’s allegory depend deeply on their graveyards, where ghosts reign supreme. Grann’s fascination is for the lore of the dead (and those who seek it), while Saramago seems to worship death itself (and its indispensable value to the living). Both are, to greater and lesser extents, adventure books, but also very much books of the mind even as the protagonist crosses an ocean and a continent only to be devoured by exotic insects even as he starves (Fawcett), or endures rainstorms and burglarizes a school to collect a necessary trail of documents (Jose). Both venerate the search itself, and how the degree of our desire leads us closer to—or farther from—that thing we seek.
I came away from these books a bit conquered myself. Saramago’s writing, especially in the second half, is some of the most beautiful verse I have ever read—pure music, crescendo after crescendo. And Grann’s level-headed reporting, by contrast, lets the facts alone bring us to our knees. There’s much more to both books that I dare not spoil. I’ll just tell you their names—you can discover them for yourself.