Novel inspired by the life of Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton.
Inspired by the life of Sir Richard Burton, The Collector of Worlds has an offering with a single flame on its cover, and it is the burning of a notebook in a fire which begins a story about the Victorian explorer who believed that truth is only found by being true to oneself.
Iliya Troyanov’s prize-winning bestseller The Collector of Worlds, the UK edition of which has my photograph of an offering being placed on the River Ganges as a cover, begins with the death of its protagonist, the formidable Victorian scholar and explorer, Sir Richard Burton.
Through the flames of a bonfire, into which the dead explorer’s notebook is thrown, Troyanov takes us back in time to meet Burton as a young cadet on his first day in India.
Born in 1821, Richard Francis Burton studied for the clergy at Trinity College, Oxford, but his rebellious nature meant he managed only five terms before being kicked out. More to his liking was a commission in the army of the East India Company, in who’s employment Burton remained until he joined the diplomatic service in 1861.
A formidable linguist well versed in Arabic and Hindustani, Burton ‘went native’ soon after his arrival in India, living among the indigenous population of Sindh for weeks at a time gathering intelligence for the governor, General Sir Charles Napier. Burton’s detailed reports were to inform Napier in his imposition of the British legal system on the recently annexed province.
In 1853, on paid leave from the East India Company, and funded by a grant from the Royal Geographical Society, Burton went on the hajj to Mecca, a perilous journey taken in disguise which was to result in the classic text, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to El-Medinah and Meccah (1855, three volumes).
Becoming one of the few Europeans to enter Mecca and survive would have been enough for most men, but not Burton, who then set out for the legendary walled city of Harar in Somali country, again in disguise. In 1858 Burton followed Harar with a fever-plagued journey through uncharted territory in East Africa in search of the source of the Nile. During this journey Burton, with Speke, became first European to set eyes on Lake Tanganyika.
In 1861 Burton married Isabel Arundell, a convent girl with a longing for adventure who he had first met nine years earlier. In the hope of securing a better income he joined the diplomatic service whereupon he was dismissed from the East India Company.
Burton asked for the consulship in Damascus, but accepted the appointment of British Consul in ‘the white man’s grave’ that was West Africa, a destination too dangerous for his new wife to follow. That same year a warehouse fire destroyed many of Burton’s oriental manuscripts, a loss which was to be compounded by Isabel thirty years later.
After West Africa Burton was appointed consul to São Paulo, Brazil. His dream diplomatic appointment to Damascus came in 1869, but he was dismissed (possibly due to involvement in an attempted revolt against Turkish rule) and sent to the quiet backwater of Trieste where he died in 1890 aged 69.
In the weeks and days leading up to his death Burton worked on a translation of an Arabic book on sex, The Perfumed Garden of the Cheikh Nefzaoui, which Isabel burnt with other documents including Burton’s notebooks and diaries.
In a letter to the London Morning Post, published four months before her husband’s death, Isabel describes Burton as a pioneer who opened the way for more celebrated travelers like Stanley, enduring in the process the severest hardship, dangers, “And cold receptions on his return.” That Isabel should destroy so much of his legacy seems extraordinary, but what the flames took they give back a little in form of The Collector of Worlds and its evocative opening.
In a richness of origins that Burton might have appreciated, the picture of the hand placing an offering on the River Ganges shows a Hindu custom which I photographed during a Buddhist journey. The picture is now on the cover of an English language edition of a novel, written in German by a Bulgarian, that was inspired by the life of a man who steeped himself in Islam yet married and was buried a Catholic.
• Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890): “Explorer, ethnographer, and man of letters. Pilgrim to Mecca and Harar; discoverer of Lake Tanganyika; translator of the Arabian Nights; controversialist and iconoclast.”
• The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov
Text © 2012 Graham Harrison