Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov

When a book opens with a single cinematic sweep, moving from Sir Richard Burton death through the reluctant giving of last rites, to a sharp focus on a burning photograph of the 22-year-old Richard Burton that pulls you into his 1840's Bombay, you know you are in for a treat. This book is The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov just published in the UK translated by William Hobson but originally published in Germany in 2006. The book is not a Biography, History or a novel but a biographical fiction meaning as the author says that the live and works of Sir Richard Burton inspired him because all

…individual lives are mysterious, particularly those of people one had never met. This Novel is intended as personal approach to a mystery rather than as an attempt at definitive revelation.

This approach shapes the unusual structure of the novel. It is divided into three sections: first is Burton's service in India in 1842-49, second is his travels in disguise to Mecca and Medina as a pilgrim on the hajj (1851-53)and concludes with his journey from Zanzibar to Lake Tanganyika in 1858 as he attempted to discover with a fellow explorer the source of the Nile. So we don't know his life before or after this period or even during this period when away from waving the Flag.

In each section, Burton’s reveals his thoughts through a third-person monologue whilst other narrators offer context or even contrasting views. Burton acts as the antagonist to these characters where as his is the culture or landscape of India, Arabia and Africa. In the Indian section, these others are Lahiya, a professional letter-writer, to whom Burton's one-time servant Naukaram goes to have his story written up, in the hope of gaining further employment. It’s soon clear to Lahiya that Naukaram is not telling the whole truth and as we see neither is Burton. In the Arabian section, a script like exchange between various Islamic officials, suggests that he spied on military positions. Perhaps he did, or perhaps they fear the loss of rich pickings as the long slow decline of the Ottoman Empire gave opportunities for the politically unscrupulous. The African section narrator is another historical character Sidi Mubarak Bombay, we meet him as a old man telling stories to his friends and relatives. He was a slave working in India before gaining his freedom and returning to Madagascar and becoming a key figure in most of the big exploratory expeditions of the time into East Africa. Through him, we explore the conflicting motives and styles for the Speke and Burton expedition to find the source of the Nile.

The language is poetic with scene after scene evoked with powerful physical detail and a constant parade of realistic characters from a long faded 19th Century that engage us in both Burton’s life as well as the other narrators. Together each section reveal a complex ambiguous man who loved language, disguises, adventure, learned to love sex, and wanted to understand cultures for the wider benefit of the Empire without perhaps realising the irony that Empires once they see the worth of other cultures the right to rule begins to crumble.

I strongly recommend the book for a highly enjoyable read and an introduction to a man well worth reading and in many ways a man ahead of his time.


  1. I never would have even come across this if it weren't for your review. Thanks, I'll check it out :)


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