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The collector of worlds

World traveller and Mecca pilgrim Ilija Trojanow has written a biographical novel about Richard Francis Burton, Mecca pilgrim and world traveller. By Karl-Markus Gauß

A man has found his biographer. And the biographer has found a man whose untamed and contradictory character could only be tied down in a novel. Richard Francis Burton really did live from 1821 until 1890, even if his life reads like an adventure novel. And an adventure novel is what Ilja Trojanow has written. Yet it's a novel which despite revelling in storytelling, consciously resists the temptation so common to the genre to string together a row of thrilling episodes and exotic locations just for the effect.

"Der Weltensammler" (The collector of worlds) is a novel of many layers. And its author, born in Sofia in 1965, is clearly fascinated by his hero, although he doesn't completely succumb to his charm. It's not just awe and sympathy that spur on the cavalier adventures over 500 pages. The author also manages to keep a distance and ensure the novel doesn't become a Herculean hymn. It remains an unparalleled historical novel, at once exciting and intelligent, colourful and meditative.

Richard Francis Burton was a British colonial officer with a rare ability to revere and not despise indigenous cultures, mixed with a mysterious passion for steeping himself in a tradition until it became part of him. His obsessive travelling took him from England to British India, and from there to Arabia and finally to the source of the Nile in Africa. He learnt more than 20 languages, studied the lifestyle and views of the Brahmans, was the first European to take part in the pilgrimage to Mecca and discovered Lake Tanganyika in East Africa. His highly popular travel books introduced Europeans to a world, or rather worlds, which they knew virtually nothing about and which they were then preparing to colonise.

Trojanow has his protagonist trying on new cultures like clothes, lounging about in them and changing them at will. And in doing so he underlines the historical ambivalence of this way of discovering the world. Burton is a discoverer, but he doesn't shy away from actually going out and observing the countries. He holds the smug English officers in contempt, but the results of his intensive studies and trips, often marked by privation, were also of interest to the strategists in the British army.

In a witty protocol invented by the author, the ambassador to the Ottoman empire muses on the officer's solitary travels and the success of his books: "The subjects of the British empire want to have a go at conquering the world… But I suspect this sort of publication is to prepare the ground for an immediate future where these regions are no longer far-off and unknown, but part of an empire. It's a hasty familiarisation with foreign lands which the British empire soon plans to annex."

The immense wealth of material in the novel is spread over three lengthy chapters. In the first we follow Officer Burton to British West India. Barely has he set foot on solid ground than he's doing deals with the locals: port wine for new words. He learns so fast that soon only a scholar can to teach him. The strict, wily Brahman Upanitsche teaches him Sanskrit and offers him a glimpse of India's spiritual diversity. Burton lives in Bombay and Baroda, cities whose atmospheres Trojanow masterfully evokes. "Sometimes the bulging town let out a belch. It was as if everything had been decomposed by stomach fluids. Half-digested sleep lay on the side of the road, soon to melt away."

But Trojanow is not content with delicately capturing the smells, colours and atmosphere of the towns where Burton travelled, and his impressions of the people he met. The narrative is anything but linear, introducing multiple perspectives. The first chapter continually switches between the traveller's experiences and the memories of his Indian servant, Naukaram, who dictates them to a scribe.

First we view India from the perspective of the Englishman, and then from that of the Indian. The servant is in constant awe of his master, all the while attempting to draw him closer to his own world. But before the adventure can take off on its own, and before the reader loses himself in the wealth of exotic details, opium dealers and courtesans, Trojanow interrupts the narrative by confronting Burton's view of the Indians with the Indian's view of the British foreigner.

The author's own rich history has predestined him for this kind of criss-crossing, and his stupendous knowledge gives him the tools to do it. Trojanow was born in Bulgaria, migrated to Germany in 1971 with his parents, but grew up in Kenya where he went to a German school. He travelled to Tanzania in Burton's footsteps, studied Islam, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina and spent a year in Bombay before embarking on a long trip around India. "Along the Ganges", an ethnographic reportage, was published in 2003. The following year appeared "To the holy sources of Islam. A pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina." These two books were essential research for the big novel to come.

In order to visit the cities of Mecca and Medina which were barred to non-believers at the time, Burton converted to Islam. This conversion is testimony to his respect for Islamic culture and his unwavering tenacity. The middle section of the novel attempts to decipher the riddle of the "Islamic Burton". The Englishman studied the Koran and fraudulently gained respect as an Islamic doctor. He got access to the harems of the rich and tells a dumbfounded Western audience of his pilgrimage to the holy cities of Islam.

Yet the author is still not satisfied with the riotous adventures of his "collector of worlds". He contrasts them with letters and journals from the Ottoman authorities which voice misgivings about this crazy Englishman who appears more Arab than any Arab, asking what on earth he's doing in their country.

The third section is set in Africa. It too features a companion who sheds light on what Burton gets up to from a non-European perspective. The explorer sets out on an expedition to be the first to reach the source of the Nile. Sidi Mubarak Bombay describes the deprivations and adversities this expedition had to contend with.

Trojanow's elegant, multi-layered narrative enables him to draw a dazzling picture of India, Arabia and East Africa through the eyes of the wandering European, and to portray the qualities and quest of this eccentric Englishman through the eyes of Indians, Arabs and Africans. The concept "foreign" in this magnum opus of an author in his middle years is double-edged. However foreign the Islamic or Hindu culture is to us, if we turn around and view the world from Bombay, Cairo or Bagamoyo on the east coast of Africa, it's the strangeness of the West which inspires awe.

Ilija Trojanow: "Der Weltensammler", a novel. Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich 2006. 475 pages 24
.90 euros.


The article originally appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on March 18, 2006

Karl-Markus Gauß was born in Salzburg in 1954, where he still lives and works today as essayist, critic, and publisher of the magazine "Literatur und Kritik". He has received numerous awards, among them the Austrian state prize for cultural journalism.

Translation: Abby Darcy. - let's talk european