Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Highly Recommended

A book I have just finished reading: The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov.

It's a fictionalised biography of the great Victorian explorer Richard Francis Burton.
Admittedly, I was also interested because the author is Bulgarian (writing in German).

The book itself exceeded my expectations. The life of a man thirsty for knowledge explodes before your eyes like a colourful painting. A man thirsty for knowledge, not for power - a key element which all the more exalts him as a character. His explorations of India in the time of the Raj accompanied by Naukaram, his guide and 'servant', are recreated with vividness, brutal realism, and from multiple
perspectives.

The novel itself is multi-layered, the point of view shifting from one character to another, exposing Burton's often controversial activities in all their splendid variety and pioneering boldness.
He learns Gujarati, Hindustani, among a multitude of dialects, astonishing and even frightening the locals. He is often suspiciously looked upon as simply another British colonialist, trying to 'civilize' them, subjecting them in the process. However, it's clear Burton's nature belies the imperialist character of the other British officers there. He does not simply absorb their culture, he practically lets their culture absorb him. He is not there to conquer them politically by force; he is there to conquer his own fears, to defy his seemingly lacklustre background which he perceives as stagnant, bleak and uninspiring. In fact, on a couple of occasions his disdain for his own country is made explicit. His veiled contempt for his superiors, including the great General Napier, is also not spared the reader who is eventually deployed to the Sindh province of colonial Pakistan.

Burton's sexual exploits are also depicted in a surprisingly graphic manner. Nevertheless, even the relationship between him and his 'mistress' are complex as he is caught up in a painful love triangle with her and Naukaram. In fact, even the people who accompany him in his tortuous but fascinating travels are richly developed characters, all with their own story to tell - one of the most rewarding aspects of the book, without a doubt.

Burton makes the Hajj and publishes his personal account of it, sending shockwaves throughout the Muslim world.
The scenes where he finds himself among the thousands of pilgrims in Mecca are reflected upon as we are steeped in the consciousness of the man himself - a consciousness that possesses the lucidity and vitality of water and the fieriness and volatility of oil.


His most arduous exploit however is presented in the third main part of the book - his laborious expedition targeting the source of the Nile. Illnesses plague him and his fellow explorer, John Hanning Speke - a person he comes to detest. In fact, ironically he gets along better with the natives and the other foreign participants on the expedition than with his fellow Englishman.
Evidently, Troyanov is acutely conscious of this and strives to make it as explicit as possible. I would even venture to say that perhaps he aimed to portray the quintessential British imperialist through the character of Speke who is far more interested in appeasing his ego by hunting the local wild animals than investigating the cultural heritage of the natives. He is quite clearly a foil to Burton. Not that his character given a typically secondary role - his presence is key to the final section of the book.

Burton is on his deathbed at the very end. The ending isn't sad though, neither is it particularly dramatic. He dies, but an atmosphere of humour is nevertheless created as a bemused Roman Catholic priest discovers the terrible truth about the man he has just administered holy unction to. It's a clever ending, for it highlights the inscrutable nature of Burton. And indeed, that is at the very core of the book for me: religion normally transcends the individual but what happens when this rule is turned on its head? We are always left feeling small and insignificant at the thought of a religion, foreign or not, which is nonetheless a thing of higher stature than us. We are struggling to fully comprehend it - the very reason for this insecure feeling prompted by an insecure faith.

With Burton it is different.

It is as though religion itself, Islam or Christianity, is left gaping questioningly at him.
He fathoms religion better than it fathoms him. His 'last wish' could perhaps suggest otherwise but I think it merely emphasises his deep respect for it.

An intelligently written novel, well-researched and penned by a man who is himself an avid traveller. Burton is a summative character, a symbol for that very same spirit that is able to marvel at all that is foreign and ostensibly incomprehensible. That sort of spirit is a rarity, an extraordinarily valuable one however. It is particularly relevant today with the controversial role that Islamic extremism plays in our lives.

The fundamental question is laid out before us: does one need to falsely assume the role of a dervish called Sheikh Abdullah in order to grasp Islam like Burton does? The answer is a simple and straightforward 'nope'. One does not need the various aliases that Burton hides behind in order to understand other faiths and customs. All one needs is that very same inspiration that drives him along, to learn that death is not the only way to transcend earthly life.