First heard about Sir Richard F Burton two years when I was on a minor search for history. So I read Sindh and the Races That Inhabit the Valley of the Indus and Goa and the Blue Mountains by the man I vaguely knew had done all sorts of adventurous things in his life, such as discover the source of the Nile, translate The Arabian Nights complete with naughty bits, and do the Haj disguised as a Muslim.
I was looking for history. What I got was very nasty — though I have to admit, often funny and incisive — diatribes against Indians and India by a British officer of the East India Company in the 19th century who seemed to think that anyone who wasn’t white was less than human. That is history, I suppose. Such racism existed and has to be acknowledged, but the nastiness of his comments often produced flames from my nostrils and smoke from my ears. So I flung the books aside and that was the end of my Sir Richard F Burton experience.
Oddly, though, I was curious about the author. Why would someone with such a low opinion of ‘natives’ go out of his way to learn their languages and immerse himself in their cultures to such an extent that he could easily disguise himself as one of them? And what drove him to do the things he did? Was he driven by sheer intellectual curiosity, or was he actually into the cultures he claimed to despise? Richard F Burton is long dead, but I’d have dearly loved to ask him what exactly his motivations were. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only person to wonder.
The German writer Iliya Troyanov had questions too, which inspired him to write The Collector of Worlds, an imagined recreation of some of the episodes in Richard Burton’s life based on his biography and works. Superbly translated by William Hobson, the book takes in Burton’s life in India, his Haj pilgrimage and his search in East Africa for the source of the Nile.
In every episode, Troyanov alternates his present tense narrative of Burton’s doings as he imagined them, with a past tense commentary of sorts by a person (or people) who accompanied Burton. So in India, Burton’s former servant relates the tales of his master’s doings to a professional letter writer.
In Mecca, officials who’ve read Burton’s book on the Haj wonder if he was a spy, so they interrogate the people he travelled with. And in East Africa, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, an old man now, tells his friends about his own adventures as a slave and then his adventures as Burton’s guide. Because of these juxtapositions, all the questions you had about Burton — and hundreds more besides — are asked. But they’re never answered.
It’s you, the reader, who must infer, analyse, ask further questions, delve deeper into the enigma that is Richard Burton. Which makes this a book that engages you right to the end. When you still have no answers (dammit!), but you’re overwhelmed by the immensity of the ideas, perspectives and mysteries that exist in the world.
But The Collector of Worlds is more than an intellectual exercise for the few sad people on this planet interested in a 19th century colonist, explorer and possible racist pig. Even if you know nothing about Richard Burton and care less, it’s a superb travel book of sorts, drawing you expertly and seamlessly into three different but captivating worlds. Richard Burton tried desperately to collect these worlds. Iliya Troyanov has presented them to us. Superbly, on a platter.