Monday, September 13, 2010

Iliya Troyanov turns History into His Story

Sir Richard Francis Burton, who arrived in India in the 19th century as just another army officer was a man who specialized in collections and travels. A curious amalgam of personas, Burton was regularly suspected by the locals in every place he called home, absconded and traveled in disguise (as a doctor and a dervish, in one case), but he was as regularly respected and even occasionally sought after by the locals. He was fluent in more Indian languages than an average Indian. He was a man who “could adopt the manners and values of the people in front of him without any effort, sometimes without even consciously deciding to do so.”

Author Iliya Troyanov narrates into being Burton’s extensive voyages through India, the Middle East and Africa in his grandly titled book, THE COLLECTOR OF WORLDS. The book shines because of the energy its characters exude in reliving a past of vanished cultures, religious magic, philosophic knowledge and, simply, epiphany. Burton has been molded by desert winds, human throngs and merciless plagues, and they leave their timeless marks on him; this book is as much about Burton as it is about the countries to which he pledged unique allegiances.

Troyanov is acutely aware of his bold attempt to revive history, fattening a skeleton of fact that is both exalted and controversial with the flesh, bloodstream and pulse of fiction. His paragraph of preface includes the customary message that characters are made up, insisting that “all individual lives are mysterious, particularly those of people one has never met,” a tip of his hat to undaunted explorers of yore. If one can never know a person in totality, then isn’t fiction the best way to attempt intimacy? Yes, says Troyanov, with a nod to time travel, cueing one of my favorite moments in the book, between an old man and his grandson:

- I was Bwana Burton’s binoculars.

- What’s that?

- An instrument that brings what’s far away near.

- Like time?

Having recently read two factual travelogues, I notice the absence of maps and photos in Troyanov’s 444 page book. It is a subtle reminder that, as real and subversive as Burton was in his time, Troyanov prefers to honor him with imagination and flourish than with library archives. He buries Burton in the first sentence – “He died early in the morning before you could tell a black thread from a white” – and presents his adventures through the reminiscent voices and words of people who knew him best – none British, we observe. We meet Burton’s man servant Naukaram in India, who narrates his tale to a lahiya – a letter writer since Naukaram is illiterate – and produces a rich, emotional first person narrative spiced with the lahiya’s cheeky interpretations. “That is genuine scruples,” the lahiya asserts after re-writing a section of Naukaram’s story, “distorting a story until it becomes true,” and I appreciate the parallels between the lahiya and Troyanov, in outlook and outcome. We hear four of Burton’s Muslim friends debate the sincerity of Sheikh Abdullah’s pilgrimage (as he was known in these chapters) to Mecca – was he a true Muslim? Was he spying for the British? – and before any resolution to these questions, we are again treated to first person accounts of Burton’s movements and thoughts. In the third and final section of the book, we are taken to the garden of the chatty Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a native of Zanzibar, who is part of Bwana Burton’s expedition to “find a meaning for the white patches on the world’s maps.” He recalls the past with the pace of the sun rolling across the East African sky, slowly, steadily, increasing in intensity as the sun accelerates its blushing descent. His friends and grandson – and, begrudgingly, his wife – listen wide-eyed. Burton’s first-person voice is heard in small doses, in letters to his brother where he remarks on several subjects: “Persian… seems to me the proudest of all languages…We’ve never had such a trapdoor to ecstasy”; “A racecourse and three brothels. What more does an Englishman need?”

The emotional tableaux in THE COLLECTOR OF WORLDS are as complex and varied as the physical scenes of mosques, deserts and slums that Burton experiences. He falls in love with a woman who, “when she sang, it was as if she was decking the day out with jewels.” He approaches God with uncanny grit, but even the Hajj does not convince him fully:

“The paradise that surrounds him fills him with delight, but even with the best will in the world he cannot accept the notion of a life after death, any more than he can the balance sheets God is supposed to fill out before peopling His kingdom. God is everything and nothing, but He is not a book-keeper.”

Several times in the deserts of East Africa, “death [holds] him hostage” but he refuses to succumb, driven to discover what men – white men – have not yet seen, smelled or tasted in all of history. He sustains his momentum with the notion that “if all other fear is alien, the fear of failure has to be similarly suppressed.”

Burton’s personality metamorphoses so many times that Troyanov is wise to speak of him through others, kindling Burton’s breaths with the voices of his associates. Religion encourages keeping company with holy companions to help you further your spiritual quest; Burton does this with people devoted to and believers in their way of life, deepening his identity as one of them without a complete transformation. Some of his disguises disturb Naukaram, as the latter recalls, while others amuse him and he finds himself laughing “as if I was scraping laughter out of a burnt pot.” One friend observes, “I think this man is outside faith of all kinds. Not just ours. That allows him to go here his will takes him, without attacks of conscience,” and I agree that Burton’s conviction seems beget by curiosity, that he runs on a restlessness spanning all religions. He is a devoted shishya (student) to his righteous Hindu guru; he basks in the current of believers flowing through Mecca; he slumbers in “the sand, the best of all beds, in the desert air,” en route to Lake Victoria enjoying what his British companion perceives as harshly administered neglect by and on a civilization of obscure desert tribes.

The landscapes that Burton lives in and travels through are putty in a good writer’s hands, and Troyanov constructs them marvelously. He captures Bombay’s distracted frenzy in two sentences, when Burton first lands in India: “A child without skin was thrust towards him. Burton was horrified for a moment, then forgot about it.” Troyanov joins authors like Rohinton Mistry and Salman Rushdie in painting frenzied pictures of a bustling city with a mix of short sentences, winding diatribes and descriptive lists.

Burton’s mysterious motives for traveling to and struggling in places of extreme poverty, heat and religiosity do not interfere with Troyanov’s hope for closure at the end of his multi-layered story. The querulous lahiya and his dissatisfied wife end up collaborating on Naukaram’s near-epic. Sidi Mubarak Bombay’s wife cannot contain her surprise and appreciation for her oratorically gifted husband and replaces her mockery of his tale with gestures of love and intimacy. The four Muslims ultimately and unanimously believe that Burton “will have experienced God’s infinite grace” and Sidi Mubarak Bombay, once annoyed at his white masters’ ignorant authority on a near-fatal journey through a desert, today peacefully admits, “I don’t understand the wazungu” (white men).

While the Arab proverb states, “Conceal Thy Tenets, Thy Treasure, and thy Traveling,” that Burton includes in his PERSONAL NARRATIVE OF A PILGRIMAGE TO AL-MADINAH AND MECCAH in 1855, Troyanov gives us the locals’ tenets and Burton’s treasures through the travels of a motley collective. Through all this, Burton’s true identity seems still concealed; as Bombay observes, “I can’t describe [Burton] fully because he never showed himself to me fully.”

Attempting to unravel the enigma that is Burton is in itself a pleasure. And by seeking that pleasure, we, the Reader, in some small way become the collector of worlds.

Book: THE COLLECTOR OF WORLDS (A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton) by Iliya Troyanov, translated by William Hobson. Published by Ecco, 2009.


  1. My lovely, this is wonderful! Reading this spoke to my passion for travel and discovery - and as my spirit is reawakening and re-energized, I'm sure your writing will have a similar effect on all who read your splendid work:)

    Kazi Njema my dear!

    oh yeah. and im seeing you in like, 8 days. wanna climb a mountain??

  2. See, this is why great book reviews are dangerous. They make poor unemployed dudes want to go out and buy books they can't afford :( Seriously, it sounds gorgeous.

    BTW, for more Burton-related stuff there's the long forgotten movie "Mountains of the Moon" and Philip Jose Farmer's "Riverworld" books- which feature a resurrected Burton exploring the world 30,000 years in the future.

  3. Thank you, my bella Banyanette! A lot more to come, I hope. A mountain, you say? Sounds like a plan ;)

    David, thanks! I own the book, and you're more than welcome to borrow it. Burton in the future, how fascinating. Thanks for the tip.