The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov is a work of fiction about Sir Richard Burton. There is even a disclaimer at the front of the book to make sure we understand the book as fiction and not biography.
The book is broken up into three sections. In the first, the story begins in 1824 with Burton’s arrival in India. He is working for the East India Company and is assigned command of a post in Baroda. Immediately he is best by Naukaram, a man who finagles his way into becoming Burton’s servant. Naukaram turns out to be invaluable in many ways.
Burton is not like the other British working for the East India Company who always strive to make wherever they are as British as possible. None of them really wants to have anything to do with any of the people living in India and most of them only have bigoted and mean things to say about anyone who is not British. Burton, however, is so bored in his backwater post that he makes his servant start teaching him Gujarati. Soon his servant engages a teacher for Burton, a guru, who teaches Burton several Indian languages as well as all about Hinduism. Burton begins dressing like an Indian and his teacher even encourages him to test his growing language skills and cultural knowledge by passing as a merchant from another province who is in town visiting the guru. Burton is thrilled by his success. He keeps up the charade and learns more than he ever imagined about the people of Baroda.
Then he gets transfered to Sind. Sind is a Muslim part of India. Here Burton becomes obsessed with learning Arabic and learning about Islam. He starts going out dressed like a local. He is engaged by the General of the post at Sind to spy and try to figure out who is passing British information to the local rebels. To truly pass as a Muslim, Burton gets circumcised. At the climax of this section of the book Burton finds himself arrested by the British and suspected as one of the rebels. It gets pretty tense when Burton refuses to reveal who he really is because he doesn’t want to blow his cover.
The second section of the book is Burton’s pilgrimage to Mecca. Pretending he is an Indian Muslim named Sheikh Abdullah, Burton begins his pilgrimage in Cairo. He travels by caravan to Medina and Mecca and participates in all the holy rites. His disguise is so good no one he befriends and travels with suspects he is a white man from Britain. There is one person who suspects Burton is not who he says he is, but he cannot catch Burton in the lie. This is a horribly brutal section in the book. The pilgrimage is dirty, dusty and crowded. People die from starvation, dehydration, sickness, and bandits. Just surviving and making it home alive seems cause for celebration.
While walking around the Kaaba in Mecca with the crowds, praying and performing the rites, Burton has moments of ecstasy, only to have it come crashing down when his rational mind starts thinking about things:
Of course, it’s beautiful to picture all mankind as brothers and sisters, but a suspicion had started turning round the Kaaba, growing with every circuit. If every person were close 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. The two don’t go well together.
The irony is that Burton really has no one to care for nor anyone to care for him.
The third and final section of the book is the most brutal of all. It tells the story of Burton and John Hanning Speke searching for the source of the Nile in Africa. They begin their journey from Zanzibar. Together with guards, porters and a guide, they cross jungle and desert and swamp. Both Speke and Burton get sick with malaria before they even make it halfway to the Arab settlement of Kazeh.
They know there are two large lakes that could be the source of the Nile, Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. None of the Africans understand why it is so important to these men to find which one the Nile flows from. The people traveling with them only care about getting paid and making it home alive. The suffering of Speke and Burton, the continual bouts with malaria–fever, hallucinations–almost kills Burton. Speke goes deaf in one ear after a swarm of tiny beetles erupts from under his tent one night and one crawls inside his ear. It drives him insane and all he can think to do is to poke a knife into his ear to kill the beetle.
What I liked best about this book is the way it is structured. Each section of the book is from two points of view that switch back and forth. In the first part, Naukaram goes to a lahiya, a scribe, and tells his story so the scribe can write a letter for him complaining about his treatment by Burton. Their part of the story almost mimics A Thousand and One Nights. The lahiya at the end of each day tells Naukaram that he must come back the next to tell him more of his story so he can get the letter perfect. The lahiya takes Naukaram’s story and turns it into a book and a story of its own. We flip-flop between Burton and Naukaram throughout.
The second section is told by Burton and a group of Muslim leaders investigating how Burton managed to fool everyone and get in to the holy places. They are afraid that he was really spying and they want to know if and what he discovered and to what purpose he was going to put his information.
The third part of the book is told by Burton and the company’s guide. The Guide tells his part of the story to his friends while sitting in the courtyard of his house or indoors over dinner.
Burton’s part of the story is not told from the first person but from the third person. We are privy to Burton’s thoughts and experiences but what Burton doesn’t know we don’t know either.
The whole book ends up being not just about Burton, an interesting man, a man who had big ambitions and was never really satisfied, a man who was also searching for peace but for whom it was always just out of his grasp. The book is also about storytelling. We are reminded that each story has more than one point it can be told from and each one is equally valid. We see how telling stories touches others and how those stories become part of other people’s stories and also take on a life of their own. And ultimately we see how storytelling shapes who and what we are and how inevitable it is. We can’t not tell stories.
I very much enjoyed the book. It was not a quick, easy read nor is it short. This book takes effort. And though now and then the story sags and feels a bit too long, the effort in the end is worthwhile.