Oct/Nov 2008  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Collector of Worlds: A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton

Review by Ann Skea

The Collector of Worlds: A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton.
Iliya Troyanov.
Translated by William Hobson.
Faber & Faber. 2008. 454 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 23946 7.

Richard Francis Burton was an explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, ethnologist, linguist, poet, hypnotist, fencer, and diplomat. So says Wikipedia. And if the success of a novel based on the life of an historic personage is that it makes you want to know more about that person, then, in my case, The Collector of Worlds, clearly succeeded.

Iliya Troyanov prefaces The Collector of Worlds with a note that, in following some of the events of Burton's life, he has not hesitated to depart from or elaborate on the gaps in the historical record. Nevertheless, if the Wikipedia entry does not similarly embroider the facts, much of Troyanov's book does give a fairly close account of Burton's adventures in India, Arabia, and Africa. Burton may not have been coached in the sexual needs of women by a temple courtesan called Kundalini, but he was certainly guided on his African expedition to Lake Tanganyika by an African called Sidi Mubarak Bombay. There is also good historical evidence that he did disguise himself as Mirza Abdullah, a Muslim merchant, to spy for General Napier in the Indian Sindh, and later, as the Persian dervish and doctor, Sheikh Abdullah, in order to visit Mecca and perform the Hajj. Burton was clearly fascinated by cultures other than his own, to the extent that he adopted their customs and dress in order to learn more about them. As an expert linguist, he spoke many languages fluently enough to pass as a native, explaining his strange accent by posing as a traveler or a visitor from a distant part of the country. It is also believed that in order to pass as a Muslim and participate in the Hajj without being detected, he had himself circumcised.

Burton was clearly an amazing man whose life contained so much unusual, dangerous, fascinating, and often bizarre adventure that Troyanov had plenty of material for this novel. But it is not just Burton's life we learn about.

In India, where Burton was a young Captain in the army of the East India Company, we hear from his servant, Ramji Naukaram; and from the Indian scribe to whom Naukaram tells his story, and who happily invents his own deviations and elaborations on the historical record.

In Egypt and Arabia, there are other people, other voices and other stories, all linked with Burton but all presenting him from a different angle. And in Africa, there is Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a man who has lived three lives and now, comfortable and garrulous in his dotage, delights in recounting his many adventures to his family and friends. Bombay is a wonderful character in his own right. His accounts of his capture by slave traders when he was a child, his life in slavery, and his eventual experiences as a free man and guide to Burton and Speke's African expeditions, are amazing and often horrifying tales.

Collector of Worlds is an ambitious book. It is well written, well translated from the original German by William Hobson, full of interesting characters and events, and full of information about Burton and the sort of world (or worlds) in which he lived. I found the account of Burton's experiences on the Hajj absorbing reading, and I liked the varied ways in which Troyanov captures Burton's unusual, clever, irascible and fiercely independent character. Burton truly lived as the passage from his own translation of the Arabian Kasidah of Hajji Abdu El-Yezdi commands: "Do what thy manhood bids thee do, / from none but self expect applause; / he noblest lives and noblest dies / who makes and keeps his self-made laws"; and Troyanov uses this quotation as a preface to his book.

Troyanov's novel covers three complex and eventful periods of Burton's life in three totally different countries. He also weaves together the stories and voices of many different characters. Overall he does this extraordinarily well but inevitably, perhaps, there are problems. My first quibble is with the frequent use of untranslated foreign-language words and phrases. There is a glossary at the back of the book but it was not comprehensive enough for me. One untranslated phrase, for example continued to irritate me. It appeared at the beginning of every chapter devoted to the Indian scribe. Is it an invocation to certain gods? A traditional Indian letter heading? What?

Inevitably, too, there were times when my interest in characters other than Burton flagged. Some were minor characters, of no particular interest in themselves but offering a different view of Burton. But even poor old Sidi Mubarak Bombay frustrated me when his amiable digressions and chat got in the way of his account of his involvement in Burton's and Speke's journey, and of their progress and, as was more usual, disasters.

Nonetheless, Troyanov is an excellent story-teller, and he very effectively brings Burton to life and demonstrates that there was much more to the man and his life than is generally known. I, for one, will now go and read more about Burton, and especially, more of his own extensive writing.


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