Monday, July 6, 2009

Iliya Troyanov's "The Collector of Worlds": Book Review

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-90) remains famous today for reporting from Mecca, learning Asian, Arabic and African languages, spying as a native, and "discovering" Lake Victoria as the White Nile's source. His "Kama Sutra" translation made him famous; his widow's burning of his erotica after his death made her infamous. A Bulgarian-born traveller among many of the lands Burton explored, Troyanov wrote this novel in German; William Hobson's translation appears nearly seamless. However, the novel tends towards more matter-of-fact recitals of what Burton and his peers saw, felt, thought, and endured; how much of this tone can be accounted for in the original vs. the rendering I've read I cannot ascertain. It does give a somewhat more reticent, oblique perspective than readers of such a bold man may expect given the fictional potential.

The strengths of this tripartite narrative lie in Troyanov's sympathies with his predecessor. He distances himself from the mercurial, enigmatic Burton. He filters his thoughts through a mixture of obliquely observed, indirect first-person and mostly third-person informants who tell their tales about Burton to other listeners. Troyanov layers his story well; the stories add up and cloak Burton in more intrigue.

The first is told by Burton's assistant in India for eight years to a scribe employed to create a letter of reference. Burton here arrives, sours on the military, and makes himself useful as a spy due to his chameleon-like abilities. The relevance of Hindu-Muslim tensions applies well to his age and to ours.

Second, Burton enters Mecca, having been circumcised. Whether or not he's a real Muslim remains vague; Troyanov filters the uncertainty of an Englishman and how far he can claim, inside himself, to have gone native when it comes not to his tongue or his appearance but his soul. Where do his loyalties lie? The efforts of a team of high-level officials overseeing the governance of Mecca, as they interview and then interrogate those with whom Burton acted on his pilgrimage, or "hajj," again testify to the currency of their debate. Who will control the Arab holy cities? Will the Wahhabi take over with their zealotry, or will the Turks practice a more benign rule in league with the Western powers circling closer to the Middle East?

Finally, a rather ingenious if sensible chain of interpreters brings Burton and his sometime partner, then rival John Hanning Speke into the deserts, swamps, and wastelands of Africa. The narrative here enlivens and the teller, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, starts with showing how Burton's relied on a former slave who was taken from East Africa to India, therefore learning Hindustani, and then having Burton use him as a guide to parlay with natives as they-- with a hundred and twenty guards and bearers-- seek the source of the Nile and the mystery of the Mountains of the Moon. There's a softness here and a heightened drama that makes this the most satisfying of the three main sections.

In retrospect, the power of the novel rests more in the old-fashioned tension of its subject and the wonders he sees and the torments he finds. Most of the novel moves well, never flagging given the primary sources must lie in Burton's own work. It's not a flashy work, but a solid, steadily paced read, like its subject, who never turns back from filling in the white places on the map, much as this determination confounds everyone around him, no matter where he goes and whose persona he assumes. Inside, he stays ultimately a mystery, and even this novel cannot penetrate his disguises. This may confound some readers today wanting a tidy psychoanalytical or post-colonial explanation of what makes Burton tick inside. It may frustrate audiences today, but it refuses to offer any more rationales than those around Burton can imagine, in Troyanov's many-layered, intricately structured narratives.

The horrors of slavery and the attack of a mudslide on Burton and Speke's camp make the latter portion of the tale most memorable. The Indian section's standout part comes with how it shows Burton infiltrating himself within plotters as a merchant; similarly, the Meccan pilgrimage features the novel's single most philosophical vignette. It comes out of Burton's unease after he circles the Kaaba in Mecca: "If every person were closer to you, who would you care for, who would you suffer with? Man's heart is a receptacle of finite capacity, whereas the divine is an infinite principle." (273)

I give Burton's encounter later on the hajj, at the stoning of Satan at the pillars in the Valley of Mina, here as a taste of the flavor of this satisfying book's highlight. The pilgrims, after throwing their seven pebbles at the stones symbolizing the Evil One, shove and try to get out of the way of the other pilgrims who must throw their pebbles at the stones-- and who hit the crowds ahead of them, nearer the stones. Burton finds that this ritual's "an exercise in the all too human. Everyone approached the devil within; the pilgrims' hearts were turned to stone again, and so there was no mistake the pebbles should hit the pilgrims. Quite the opposite: in their fellow men they hit the Devil, not the column he had put there as a distraction." (292)

Burton realizes that after their perpetual motion of devotion at the Kaaba, he's entered the pilgrims' swirl at Mina of unceasing violence. Here, "at the heart of Islam," he recalls the words of his Hindu mentor: "as long as we see our fellow men simply as other people, we will never stop hurting them. Seen from this perspective, the Devil was in the differences people created between each other. A jet of saliva landing on his face confirmed the thought." (Posted to Amazon US 5-30-09.)

No comments: