Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Collector of Worlds - Seattle Times Review

A new book based on the life of Richard Burton makes about 30 that I've found which deal primarily with the controversial Nights-translator/author Richard F. Burton. My list of Burton bios is on Amazon here: Do let me know if I've missed something.

The new book "The Collector of Worlds" by Iliya Troyanov is interesting because it's fiction and written in a novel format. I look forward to adding it to my massive pile of unread "books to read."

Here's the link to the review (I'm sure there will be many others forthcoming):

And the review itself:

"The Collector of Worlds": a 19th century global visionary

"The Collector of Worlds" is novelist Iliya Troyanov's fictional version of the fantastically complicated life of 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton.

By Robert Allen Papinchak

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Collector of Worlds: A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton"

by Iliya Troyanov, translated by William Hobson

Ecco, 453 pp., $24.99

Nineteenth-century world traveler Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) has been called an explorer, linguist, writer, soldier, translator, diplomat and a possible spy. Bulgarian writer Iliya Troyanov distills Burton's adventuresome life in the hefty yet fast-paced biographical, historical novel "The Collector of Worlds." This highly atmospheric novel details 20 years of Burton's experiences in British West India, Arabia and Africa, where "only the ignorant or the arrogant would venture."

Much of the success of the three-part novel depends on Troyanov's inspired choice of structure. Instead of re-creating events only from Burton's point of view, Troyanov introduces the perspectives of a loyal servant, government officials and an intrepid guide.

The first part, "British India," begins with Burton's servant of seven years, Naukaram, hiring a lahiya (a street scribe) to tell his own story. This section sparkles with humor. What purports to be a two-page letter approaches 200 pages in Troyanov's novel, as the scribe keeps adding details of Naukaram's life. Meanwhile, the servant recounts the youthful Burton's conscientious immersion in Indian culture — from avidly learning the language of Sanskrit to accepting a diet of vegetables, nuts and fruits. The erotic nature of Burton, future translator of the "Kama Sutra," evolves through his relationship with Kundalini, a vestal courtesan.

While in India, Burton became a master of disguises. This serves him well in part two, "Arabia," when he takes on the identity of Mirza Abdullah, a doctor and a dervish, on the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. This second section includes a series of investigative exchanges by government officials certain that Burton is a spy for the British government seeking information on "previously remote, unknown corners of the world [which] will become part of the empire." The journey to Mecca is not without serious consequences as the "master of secrets" becomes the victim of a violent attack.

One of Burton's greatest efforts, searching for the source of the Nile River, is disclosed in the final part of the novel, "East Africa." He is accompanied by his stalwart guide, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who offers the third alternative narration for the novel. Details of the trek include information about Burton's exploring companion, John Hanning Speke. The trio travels from Zanzibar, where the sands are "like finely ground sea salt steeped in gold," through the villages of Bagamoyo and Kazeh before reaching Lake Tanganyika and then Lake Victoria. Along the way, they are almost killed by a mudslide, contract severe cases of malaria and get help from a mganga (witch doctor).

Although "The Collector of Worlds" is ostensibly about Burton and his daring accomplishments, the reader seems to learn more about Naukaram and Sid Bombay. This in no way diminishes the value of the tightly-woven novel, which succeeds in fleshing out the servant and the guide while Burton remains the well-regarded historical figure.


  1. Here's some more Burton biographies or books that contain plenty of Burton biographical information:

    Burne, Glenn S. Richard F. Burton. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985.

    Burton, Jean. Sir Richard Burton's Wife. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1941.

    Orrmont, Arthur. Fearless Adventurer: Sir Richard Burton. New York: Julian Messner.

    Schonfield, Hugh J. Richard Burton, Explorer. London: Herbert Joseph Ltd., 1936.

    Swayne, George C. Lake Victoria: A Narrative of Explorations in Search of the Sources of the Nile Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1868. This has quite a bit of info on Burton in it.

    I would include John Hanning Speke's What Led to the Discovery of the Source of the Nile Edinburgh: William Blackwood & Sons, 1864 in the Burton Biography list.

    Wilkins, W.H. The Romance of Isabel Lady Burton London: Hutchinson and Co., 1897. Bound to have plenty of Sir Richard info.