The Collector of Worlds:
A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton
by Iliya Troyanov
translated (from the German Weltensammler; 2006) by William Hobson. Ecco: 2009.
The fabulously romantic life of Burton has been told in many a novel and many a film—from all of which Iliya Troyanov’s intelligent, vastly entertaining novel differs in crucial respects. Readers may recall the viscerally exciting biographical film Mountains of the Moon (1990) that followed the dangerous voyage in search of the Nile’s source and the bitter quarrels over priority in discovering that source at the Geographical Society of London. What viewers of that movie will not recall are any significantly developed characters from the indigenous peoples (what the Victorians called the natives) among whom the explorers traveled. There were a few servants whose dedication issued in sacrifice; and a few bloodthirsty attackers who executed the servants and wounded the whites—but none of these received serious treatment. Troyanov retells the story from the alternating vantage points of the white principals, above all Burton himself, and the non-English-speaking peoples through whose territories Burton voyages, whose languages he learns with incredible facility. As he seeks to understand them, they quizzically seek to fathom his motives and beliefs. The drama arises not so much from scenery and danger as from the exciting, often droll volleying of blindness and insight between the Englishman and the Asians and Africans whom he at once fascinates and bewilders.
The book has three main sections (set respectively in India, the Muslim Holy Land , and East Africa) framed by brief opening and closing chapters that treat Burton’s death as viewed by the Catholic priest who affords the rites of his Church to the dying explorer. From the early pages of the first section Burton’s distaste as a “griffin” or newcomer to British India for his club-haunting fellow imperialists is made clear. He masters language after language, coming to recognize that he can attain real competence in a tongue only by assuming the garb, stance, mode of life and (in some measure) beliefs of the native speakers of that tongue. Asymptotically, as it were, he becomes one of them—never quite reaching identity but assuming multiple identities that he can juggle at will—for fun, for edification, for profit, for espionage. The story of his years in India is told retrospectively by Burton’s former manservant, who, dismissed by Burton and sent back home from England, has engaged the services of a scribe to compose a fancy letter of protest at Burton’s mistreatment of the man, a letter to be presented to he does not know whom with no clear purpose. But he feels compelled to recount, to sort out, his dealings with the Englishman. The scribe, at first stretching out the interviews with his narrating client to maximize his fees, soon becomes enthralled with the story—to the point that he begins embellishing the tale and will even pay to hear more. The men bicker wonderfully, their odd-couple exchanges rendering Burton all the more impressive, all the more shadowy.
A similar structure of disclosure obtains in the second section, which presents Burton’s bold and (as a non-Muslim) risky venture of undertaking the hajj to Mecca by way of the quarrelsome exchanges of a Turkish government official and a high religious figure who (with no love lost between them) together investigate the reported sacrilege, the Turk pooh-poohing at every step.
The book delights first of all with its marvelous array of voices, rendered with exceptional skill by Mr. Hobson. Here for example is a cadenza, almost a philological patter song, of Burton’s first outstanding teacher of East Asian languages:
‘That’s the reason for our meeting today . . . . I want to escape the ennui here by learning.’
‘Ennui? You like unusual words? Then you must learn Sanskrit. The world is created out of the syllables of this language. Everything comes from Sanskrit. Take the word “Elephant”: in Sanskrit pilu. Where is the similarity there, you may ask? Follow me to Iran, where it becomes pil, because the Persians ignore short final syllables. In Arabic the pil becomes fil because, as I’m sure you know, Arabic doesn’t have a “p.” The Greeks like to add an “as” to all Arabic words, and so, if you couple it with a consonant shift, we already have an “elephas,” and from there it’s only an etymological hop and skip to the “elephant” you know. I see we will enjoy ourselves. Incidentally, what does ennui mean?’
Upon rereading this delightful passage, one recognizes that the preserved linguistic substrate at issue serves as an emblem of Burton’s shifty being. But the first time through is for fun.
After relishing the verbal pranks, a reader comes to appreciate the persistent moral ambiguity of the characters major and minor. Take for example the Catholic priest through whose eyes (in preface and coda) we view the protagonist’s death. Having ministered the last rites as if to a Catholic vexes the conscience of the priest, who comes to believe that Burton was not the Catholic his wife vouched for his being. Indeed, the cleric comes to suspect that Burton was more a Muslim than anything else. Grumbling about the laziness of the bishop who fobbed this distasteful task off on the ambitious younger man, the cleric never realizes (what the reader comes to guess) that the bishop may have wished to give his subordinate a little lesson in chauvinism and brotherhood.
One apt way of characterizing Troyanov would be as an anti-Naipaul. A first-worlder from Bulgaria, he has written sympathetic books about his travels in India and in Africa; and he too has devoted a volume to his hajj, which he made with the standard affiliation. Troyanov’s Burton is a figure whom character after character comes to suspect is half or more a Muslim—though never quite. One cannot imagine this Burton saying (as the historical figure did) of his key moment in Mecca: ‘none felt for the moment a deeper emotion than did the Haji from the far north . . . . But, to confess humbling truth, theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm, mine was the ecstasy of gratified pride.’ (This passage I take from Jason Thompson’s fine entry on Burton in the newer Dictionary of National Biography.) There will of course, if this novel is in fact as strong as I think it is, be dissertations to explore Troyanov’s powerfully imagined reconstruction of Richard Burton. For now, it suffices to say: here is a book that merits reading both for profit and for delight. In striking measure, The Collector of Worlds makes its reader, as he jumps back again and again to the eight-page Glossary that explains unfamiliar terms, something of a Weltensammler himself. One might add that an ambitious American storyteller might do worse than undertake a fictional rendering of Burton’s early full treatment of the Mormons in Utah—though the gifts of a Lethem or a Chabon would be needed to do justice to that subject.