Taming the adventurer’s allure
Some men and women have such a profound and lasting effect on literature and popular culture that they make the rest of us look as though we’ve spent our lives chasing our tails. One such bigger-than-life individual was the English explorer, linguist, translator and diplomat Richard Francis Burton.
Burton’s spectacularly perilous, intellectually sublime and occasionally scandalous achievements made him renowned throughout 19th century Europe. He not only entertained generations of Western readers, but also gave them what was for many their first detailed glimpse of Middle Eastern, African and Asian cultures, with regard to topics including Islamic mystical poetry and Indian sexual practices. Among his extraordinary exploits are: being the first non-Muslim European to make the sacred pilgrimage to Mecca; writing a 1,000-page bestseller about this adventure; two groundbreaking explorations of East Africa; and translating “The Thousand and One Nights” and the “Kama Sutra.”
Given that his exploits made him hugely famous in his time and that fascination with his protean personality continues today, it’s surprising that Bulgarian-born German writer Iliya Troyanov is the first author to try his hand at a biographical novel. Unfortunately, the results are unlikely to please either Burton enthusiasts or general readers. Though Troyanov proves himself an able researcher, “The Collector of Worlds” fails to bring the reader anywhere close to his protagonist’s mind or heart -- to give us any insights into his motivations, passions, astonishing linguistic talents or personal demons. And although Troyanov writes in an opening statement that he has included an “occasional direct quotation” from his subject, he fails to give any indication when the words are Burton’s and not his own, giving readers the errant impression that many observations are his when they are, in fact, Burton’s.
The novel is divided into three sections: the first chronicles Burton’s service in India during the 1840s; the second, his pilgrimage while disguised as a Persian dervish to Mecca and Medina (1851-53); the third, his first journey to East Africa (1858). Each section is told from Burton’s perspective -- largely in a staid, gentlemanly third person -- and at least one alternating voice, a technique that provides the reader with dissonant views of the same events. In the Indian section, this second perspective is provided by Burton’s illiterate servant, Naukaram. In the second, Troyanov gives the cross-narration to various Ottoman officials. In the third, the alternative voice is furnished by Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a former African slave who becomes an assistant to Burton and his travel partner, John Hanning Speke.
The best moments in the novel are provided by Burton’s Indian servant Naukaram, who proves himself an amusing, gloriously unreliable narrator. The banter between him and a letter-writer, whom he employs to produce a favorable account of his years with Burton, is entertaining and believable, and this offers us an intriguing glimpse into different Indian views of Westerners. Unfortunately, the narrative aimed at revealing Burton’s inner life is lifeless and distant. Troyanov doesn’t portray his protagonist as anything more than an emotionally vacant, eccentric Englishman looking for exotic thrills in less-"civilized” areas of the world. The author’s portrait is also highly sanitized. Anyone familiar with Burton’s writing knows that he revealed all the thorny bigotry, racial stereotyping and cruel wit of his time. Not here. Instead, we get a watered-down version sure to prove acceptable to standards of political correctness.
Most infuriating of all, Troyanov misses opportunities to add drama and color to the narrative. For instance, after Burton spies around for the East India Co., Troyanov writes: “Burton delivered his report with the panache of a leading man declaiming the pivotal monologue of a play.” But do we get to read any of that thrilling monologue for ourselves? No. Do we get any vivid descriptions of his leading-man gestures and theatrics? No. While reading the novel’s Arabian section, I consulted Burton’s “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Madinah and Meccah” to see just how often Troyanov made use of his subject’s words without indicating them. And I discovered that such borrowings were both detailed and frequent. For instance, here is Troyanov writing about his protagonist’s stay at an inn:
“At least it was better than sharing the courtyard with its complement of tethered cattle, howling beggars and servants lying on huge heaps of cotton bales, scratching themselves pensively.”
The following is Burton’s:
“In the court-yard the poorer sort of travelers consort with tethered beasts of burden, beggars howl, and slaves lie basking and scratching themselves upon mountainous heaps of cotton bales.”
Here is Troyanov’s description of an acquaintance of Burton’s:
“Hamid had shaved, washed his hair, twisted the two tips of his moustache into commas and sharpened his goatee into an exclamation mark.”
And Burton’s original:
“The razor had passed over his head . . . [and Hamid] boasted of neat little moustaches turned up like two commas, whilst a well-trimmed goat’s beard narrowed until it resembled . . . an ‘exclamation point.’ ”
In such instances, Troyanov doesn’t distinguish between his writing and Burton’s, making it impossible to know who is responsible for a particular observation or comment. Maybe that was the author’s goal, but it seems an ethically dubious one to me. Or does a brief disclaimer at the beginning of a novel give a fiction writer carte blanche to appropriate another person’s words and pass them off as his own?
Zimler is the author of many novels, including “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon.” He received the 2009 Alberto Benveniste literary prize for “Guardian of the Dawn.”