Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Collector of Worlds - Iliya Troyanov

This is my review of my latest Early Reviewers book from the LibraryThing and another entry for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge.

The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov
Translated by William Hobson
Published by Faber and Faber
454 pages

The Collector of Worlds is a novel inspired by the life and works of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the notorious nineteenth century English soldier, explorer, writer and translator of works such as The Kama Sutra, The Perfumed Garden and the ten-volume Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night.

The novel begins and ends with Burton’s death: “He died early in the morning before you could tell a black thread from a white.” The young priest, pressured by his bishop and Burton’s wife into administering the Last Rites to the dying man, is uneasy. He senses that something is not right about the situation; he wants to know more about the life of this man and his beliefs. In a way, the reader stands alongside the priest, pondering the myths and mysteries that surround the exploits of Richard Francis Burton and, at the end, both priest and reader are left with those mysteries unresolved. The man remains an enigma.

Although Burton is the central figure in the novel and extracts from his own writings are incorporated into the text, we never engage directly with him. The author uses a variety of narrators to reveal some aspect of his behaviour but there is no real insight into his character or beliefs.

The book is divided into three distinct sections, each dealing with a major period in Burton’s life. The first, longest and, for me, best part depicts his time as a young officer in the East India Company, stationed in the remote outpost of Baroda. Boredom and ambition lead Burton to take his natural interest and facility in learning languages to a new and dangerous level; his fluency allows him to disguise himself as an Indian and he becomes a useful spy for the British government.

The narrators in the Indian setting are Burton’s former servant, Naukaram and the professional letter-writer he employs to write down his story. The encounters between the two of them and the flights of fancy employed by both in embellishing the tale are quite humorous and entertaining. These two and Upanishe, Burton’s wise teacher are the best-developed characters in the book.

The second part of the book deals with Burton’s pilgrimage to Mecca, disguised as an Arab. This is probably his most outrageous and dangerous exploit; if his disguise is penetrated he faces certain execution. After successfully completing the Hajj, he returns to England and publishes a book about his adventures and our insight into the affair comes from the imagined investigation by angry and offended Arab officials, who interrogate Burton’s companions who had been completely taken in by his disguise.

The final section is set in East Africa and concerns Burton’s attempt to discover the source of the Nile. The narrator is a former slave, employed as a guide and interpreter on the expedition. His family and friends find his account boring and self-indulgent and they have a point; I found myself skimming the pages in these final chapters.

Burton is a well-known figure in English history but there is no sense of his personality or his ideals in this novel; he isn’t the hero of the story. The book takes us to unexplored and dangerous places but it isn’t a conventional travel book or tale of derring-do. It is difficult to categorise it, although it is an impressive book and one I will return to because of the ideas it explores. It probably belongs in the philosophy rather than the fiction section of the library. It is a timely consideration of the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of someone fully comprehending another culture. It looks at language, religion, slavery, loyalty, honour, exploitation and many other aspects of human behaviour. It certainly isn’t a light read but it is an enjoyable one.


  1. Interesting review. Long ago, I read a biography of Burton, don't remember what it was called or who wrote it, only that is was tedious. Hard to believe a life so filled with adventure could be reduced to dull prose.

    I wondered at your use of the word, notorious? On this side of the Atlantic, it's not a compliment and Roget's defines it as "Known widely and unfavorably." Is Burton not held in high regard?

  2. e, I used 'notorious' because Burton always seemed to be acting outside of the conventions of his time and position. I can't judge whether he was a heroic adventurer, someone with a real desire to understand other cultures or if he exploited people and situations for his own ends. That isn't to underestimate his talents and achievements.

    I wonder if the fact that this book, as well as the one you read, failed to draw the reader in to the adventures might be an indication of the inability to engage with Burton as a person?

  3. I don't think 19th century adventurers were so much interested in learning about other cultures and peoples as going where no white man had gone before and went through amazing hardships to do so.

    Burton may have been one of those strong silent types who wanted to let his exploits do his talking.

  4. oh, I wanted this from LT!! Sounds like it was good, glad you reviewed it. I will have to buy it when it come out.

    PS I got your comment about switching your problem! Sounds like it was a good read for you.

    have a great weekend!

  5. Another spiffing review M! Who needs the book sections of the weekend papers when we have Random Distractions?

  6. Thank you, Bethany and D, for your kind comments. Having spent years writing essays on books, I'm not sure how much to put in or leave out of a review. I was really nervous when I opened the 'Telegraph' on Saturday to see that Bharat Tandon had reviewed it:
    However, I don't think my review was startlingly different from his. Phew!!


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