Sunday, September 21, 2008

Burton's Nights

This is from today's DNA.

Iliya Troyanov

The Victorian era’s reputation for conservatism and Puritanism may be well-deserved, but the other side of the coin is that it was an era of much scientific and geographical enquiry, one that spawned a league of extraordinary gentlemen passionate about their pursuits.

Among these was Sir Richard Francis Burton, who undertook a pilgrimage to Mecca in disguise, ‘discovered’ the source of the Nile along with John Speke, fought in the Crimean War, traveled across the United States, studied the tribes of the Cameroon, undertook a gold-mining expedition in Egypt and explored Brazil and Damascus. No doubt having much free time on his hands, he also wrote books on travel and ethnography as well as translated the Kama Sutra and the Arabian Nights into English.

It is this formidable figure that Iliya Troyanov takes as the subject of his novel Der Weltensammler, now translated into English by William Hobson as The Collector of Worlds.

Troyanov makes it clear from the start that his character of Burton is more of a fictional exploration than an accurate historical reconstruction. The Collector of Worlds comprises three sections, each one dealing with one aspect of Burton’s colourful career. The first tells of his arrival in India as an officer of the East India Company, his dalliances in Bombay and his later intrigues in Sind. The second is an account of Burton’s trip to Mecca, disguised as Sheikh Abdullah, and of his pilgrimage to Islam’s holy places. Finally, we see Burton in east Africa, accompanied by John Speke, on a grim and arduous journey to trace the Nile’s origins.

What’s unusual and appealing about the novel is the manner in which Troyanov builds his recreation. He intersperses a straightforward third person narration with accounts of Burton refracted through the eyes of others. His manservant relates his exploits to a letter-writer, testimonies of those who accompanied him to Mecca are presented, and other letters and official reports fill in the gaps. This may sound like postcolonial decentring – which was probably the aim – but Troyanov doesn’t let it come in the way of a good story. There are some howlers (such as the repeated use of ‘bubukhana’ instead of ‘bibikhana’), some scenes skirt uneasily close to Orientalist fantasy and many passages contain stilted dialogue, but overall, the account is vivid and compelling.

There is another aspect to the book, though, and it’s one that’s not so easily overlooked. Quite simply, Burton never satisfactorily comes to life as a living, breathing flesh-and-blood character, with motivations and impulses common to the rest of us. He remains enigmatic and mythical, a person whose exploits on the page have the power to fascinate, but not one whom we come to know.

In his brief introduction, Troyanov states that his is “a personal approach to a mystery rather than an attempt at definitive revelation”. Perhaps it’s just that Burton’s inner demons have the cunning to escape all of the nets that writers set for him.

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