Under my byline

Traveller’s tale

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 27 September 2008

A modern-day wanderer writes a life “story” of Richard Francis Burton

The Collector of Worlds
Iliya Troyanov
Trans. William Hobson
Faber and Faber
x + 454

When Isabel Burton burnt her husband’s papers after his death, she not only perpetrated a literary crime, she also laid the foundation of an enduring mystery: the mystery of Richard Francis Burton. In that fire were lost the notes and unpublished manuscripts of a lifetime’s exploration, composed by one of the most famous and notorious British travellers of the 19th century. As a staunch Catholic, Lady Burton was loath to see her husband’s memory besmirched with treatises on erotica and other topics outwardly abhorrent to Victorian England, so she sent it all up in flames.

Despite the widow’s burning (as one biographer called it), Richard Burton left behind a large body of published work. The best known are the first translations of the Kama Sutra, the Thousand and One Nights and The Perfumed Garden of the Shaykh Nefzawi — all in their unexpurgated form. Burton also wrote accounts of his travels, including his pilgrimage to Mecca disguised as a Pathan, and to Africa, where he made two trips to discover the source of the Nile. He also travelled in Brazil and America.

In India, Burton was a soldier of the East India Company. He arrived aged 21 after a wild adolescence, and was posted in Baroda. Tiring of the constant drill and mess life with his uncurious fellow officers, he essayed out among the natives, and with his formidable mind quickly picked up local languages and engaged teachers with whom he studied Hindu philosophy.

This is where Iliya Troyanov picks up his story. In the first act of this three-act novel (for it is a novel, not a biography), Troyanov follows Burton through Baroda and then to the newly-annexed province of Sindh, where Burton worked as surveyor and spy for General Charles Napier — this was an early phase of the Great Game. He combines two narrative streams: that of Burton himself, but told in the third person, and that of “Naukaram”, Burton’s long-time manservant and facilitator. Naukaram tells his story to a lahiya or professional letter-writer, because he needs a letter of reference. (Burton had abruptly dismissed him in Italy and sent him home with a month’s pay.)

Working in counterpoint, the two perspectives reveal Burton’s developing experience of the world he finds himself in as well as what passes for a native view of this untypical Englishman. It is a brilliant device, and Troyanov uses it in the other two sections as well, which cover Burton’s Hajj and then his second expedition through Africa with John Speke from Zanzibar to Lake Tanganyika — where his second voice is that of Sidi Mubarak Bombay, a former slave and guide who recounts in his old age the story of his travels with these crazy, driven, powerful white men.

The Hajj section is particularly fascinating, as Troyanov shows Burton struggling to reconcile his identities, as an Englishman and officer, and as a Muslim pilgrim. After his return from Mecca, Burton published A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855), which caused a sensation in England and unnerved the Turks, then in control of the Hijaz. Here, Troyanov’s second voice is that of Burton’s fellow travellers, as they are interrogated by a committee of the Mecca qadi, the sharif and the Turkish governor.

The committee discovers that it is by no means certain that Burton performed the Hajj as a Christian. In fact, he seems to be theologically a slippery fish, learned in the Qur’an and showing signs of Shia as well as Sufi ideas.

There’s a resonance with Troyanov’s own life. He, too, wrote an account of his travels from Mumbai to Mecca (2007) and (under the alternate transliteration Ilija Trojanow) a book on travelling Along the Ganges (2005). Born in Bulgaria in 1965, Troyanov fled with his family to West Germany in 1971, and emigrated to Kenya as an adult. He, too, might be called a “collector of worlds”.

In the West the stock of great figures has run out: there are already several biographies of each one. Hence the trend towards fictionalised biographies, which make it possible to fill gaps with informed speculation, provide the illusion of interiority, and combine multiple cultural perspectives. This is surely a great merit in our globalising world, a world which itself is partly the result of such minds as Burton’s.

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