The Collector of Worlds: A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton
Sir Richard Francis Burton — British military officer, spy, and gifted linguist — has been the subject of multiple biographies, with conflicting opinions as to his motivations and veracity. Perhaps it is best, then, to turn to a fictionalized account of three of his adventures for assistance in contextualizing the “facts” of his life. Troyanov does just that: he provides historical settings and backgrounds, peppered with real-life figures and invented characters who fit seamlessly into the time and place under discussion.
First up is the story of Burton’s years in British India, as related by his servant, Naukaram, who has hired a greedy scribe to tell his story. Interspersed with the details provided in response to the scribe’s prying questions are sections from Burton’s perspective, as he becomes immersed in the languages, politics, and culture of mid 19th-century India. Next, Burton continues in his Indian guise, this time as a doctor and a dervish on a traditional hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina—something definitely not allowed to Christians. Arabian government officials track his activities in an attempt to prove England’s imperial designs on the area; their interrogations and reports provide a counterpoint to Burton’s reflections on the journey. The final adventure nearly was the end for Burton: his explorations in Africa for the source of the Nile almost killed him. The trek from Zanzibar to Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria with fellow Brit John Hanning Speke are related by Burton’s guide, Sidi Mubarak Bombay, who vividly recalls the many dangers posed by both the land and the people along the way; his recollections are interrupted by his listeners’ questions and segments of Burton’s perspective.
All three tales are great stories in their own right, with the added value of providing insights into the life of a most interesting man.