May 9, 2009


The Orientalist Express: a review of THE COLLECTOR OF WORLDS By Iliya Troyanov, Translated by William Hobson (BEN MACINTYRE, NY Times Book Review)

In the heyday of Victorian expansionism, a certain sort of Englishman believed he could do anything, go anywhere, discover everything, rule every­where. None believed in that credo more passionately than Sir Richard Francis Burton: adventurer, linguist, soldier, archaeologist, poet, spy, mystic, fencer, diplomat, pederast (possibly), sexual explorer (certainly), translator, controversialist and master of disguise. Indestructible, charismatic and extravagantly scarred (the legacy of a Somali spear that passed through both cheeks), Burton was also irascible, domineering, unquenchably curious and slightly unhinged.

Burton mastered, it was said, at least two dozen languages. He adopted Muslim customs and Islamic ritual so perfectly that he was able to complete the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1853 undetected, having completed his disguise by the radical precaution of having himself circumcised. He scandalized London by privately publishing an unexpurgated translation of the Kama Sutra. He plunged into the African interior in search of the source of the Nile, a journey of almost unimaginable discomfort and courage that ended, predictably enough, in a celebrated public feud with his companion, John Hanning Speke.

This strange and brilliant man constantly invented and reinvented himself, and despite his voluminous writings, he remains an enigma. In “The Collector of Worlds,” Iliya Troyanov has turned Burton’s unbelievable life into believable fiction, achieving a rounded and satisfying portrait that traditional biography could never match.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 9, 2009 8:08 AM
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