The Collector of Worlds: A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton


A stunning fictionalized account of the infamous life of British colonial officer and translator Sir Richard Francis Burton

This fictionalized account imagines the life of Sir Richard Francis Burton—a nineteenth-century British colonial officer with a rare ability to assimilate into indigenous cultures. Burton's obsessive traveling took him from England to British India, Arabia, and on a quest for the source of the Nile River in Africa. He learned more than twenty lan­guages, ...

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A stunning fictionalized account of the infamous life of British colonial officer and translator Sir Richard Francis Burton

This fictionalized account imagines the life of Sir Richard Francis Burton—a nineteenth-century British colonial officer with a rare ability to assimilate into indigenous cultures. Burton's obsessive traveling took him from England to British India, Arabia, and on a quest for the source of the Nile River in Africa. He learned more than twenty lan­guages, translated The Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra, and took part in the pilgrimage to Mecca, in addition to writing several travel books.

This elegant, layered novel tells the story of Burton's adventures in British West India, his experience on the hajj to Mecca, and his exploration of East Africa. In each section, perspective shifts between Burton and the voices of those men he encounters along the way: his Indian servant tells the stories of his travails with Burton to a scribe; the qadi, the governor, and the shari in Mecca investigate Burton's hajj; and Sidi Mubarak Bombay, his African guide, shares his story with friends in Zanzibar. The concentric narratives examine the underbelly of colonialism while offering a breathtaking tour of the nineteenth century's most stunning landscapes.

The Collector of Worlds won the fiction prize of Germany's Leipzig Book Fair in 2006 and the Berlin Literary Award, in addition to being a runaway bestseller in Germany.

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Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe
“There are novels so finely constructed that they propel you back to the beginning at the moment you reach the end. Instead of closing the covers, you return to the first page with fresh eyes. Iliya Troyanov’s ‘The Collector of Worlds’ is a wonderfully sumptuous example.”
New York Times Book Review
“A rounded and satisfying portrait that traditional biography could never match…Troyanov’s novel is itself an act of brave exploration, setting out to chart the unknown and unknowable by filling in the blank spaces of Richard Francis Burton.”
National Geographic Traveler Online
“Mesmerizing...the perfect present for wannabe explorers.”
Ben Macintyre
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…Troyanov's novel is itself an act of brave exploration, setting out to chart the unknown and unknowable by filling in the blank spaces of Richard Francis Burton.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Troyanov recounts with gusto the three big adventures in Sir Richard Francis Burton's oversized life: his career as officer and spy-which ended when he delivered a report on British soldiers frequenting a male brothel; his famous journey to Mecca in the guise of a doctor from India; and his exploration, with John Speke, of the great African lakes that feed the Nile. The most alluring adventure is the Indian one, which largely concerns itself with Burton's affair with the luscious Kundalini, who ignites Burton's interest in Eastern wisdom stories by commingling storytelling with sex. Burton's haj to Mecca is fascinating for the details, and that Burton pulls it off. But the book's most satisfying adventure is the African explorations; Troyanov captures the psychology of the two very different (and by the end of the trip, mutually hostile) explorers as well as he does the histories of the African peoples whose lands they pass through. Troyanov (Mumbai to Mecca) is intimately acquainted with the Indian Ocean world, and this book has the cool virtuosity of one explorer saluting another. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Sir Richard Francis Burton's (1821-90) facility in learning languages and assimilating into indigenous cultures made him an enigma to other British colonial officers. The accounts from various narrators who describe his exploits in this German prize-winning novel leave him an enigma to readers as well. Burton's Indian servant relates his memories to a scribe who reworks the story further. The Grand Vizier conducts an investigation into Burton's participation in the hajj after his account of the experience is published in Britain. The man who guided Burton and others in their search for the source of the Nile enthralls listeners with tales from the journeys. Troyanov's narrative interludes offer additional information about Burton's activities in India, Arabia, and Africa but reveal little about what drove him to danger and adventure. Readers with a basic knowledge of Burton's life, an appreciation for lengthy descriptions of exotic locales, and a tolerance for ambiguity will fare better than those looking for plot or character development. Marketing campaigns may create demand in public libraries.
—Kathy Piehl

Kirkus Reviews
The 19th-century explorer, lover, translator and spy comes to life in the pages of an epic novel. Troyanov (Along the Ganges, 2005, etc.) begins in India with Sir Richard Francis Burton learning Hindustani and Gujarati, two of the some two-dozen languages he eventually mastered. Burton is at ease passing as a Hindu local, which is helpful to him because of his anthropological interests-and helpful to the British military because of his "reliable reports on the doings of the natives." In India we also witness Burton's entanglement with the exotic Kundalini, a courtesan who teaches him ways of love but whose status as a deity's wife complicates personal relationships. The novel next skips to Arabia, where Burton disguises himself as Mirza Abdullah to undertake a hajj to Mecca. To add interest and complication, he decides to pass himself off both as a doctor (he'd dabbled in medicine for years) and as a dervish (because such dissembling "will afford him a certain licence . . . unusual behaviour will be forgiven"). Burton's final adventure takes place in Africa, where he goes on a long and dangerous trek from Zanzibar to the oasis of Kazeh and thence to Lake Tanganyika. On this journey he's accompanied by John Hanning Speke, a fellow Englishman whose approach to native culture is far different from Burton's. Speke has nothing but contempt for the "savages" and is "constantly on the threshold of hatred" for indigenous cultures and for Burton himself. Throughout, Troyanov uses a complex narrative technique, incorporating letters and dialogue in play form. An intriguing narrative foregrounds Burton's multifaceted and complex personality, from his love of disguise and his intellectual intereststo his sexual proclivities.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061351938
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/24/2009
  • Pages: 464
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in Bulgaria, Iliya Troyanov has lived in Germany, Kenya, India, and South Africa. He has written several novels as well as travelogues on Africa, India, and Bulgaria. His Along the Ganges was included in Condé Nast Traveler's list of the best travelogues ever. Troyanov lives in Vienna, Austria.

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Read an Excerpt

The Collector of Worlds
A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton

Chapter One

He died early in the morning before you could tell a black thread from a white. The final prayer ebbed away; the priest moistened his lips, swallowed his spit, aware now that the doctor, who had been silent since the pulse under his fingertips had failed, stood unmoving at his side. At the end the patient had hung on out of sheer stubbornness, but had finally been defeated by an embolism. A woman's liver-spotted hand rested on the dead man's folded arms. Now it drew back and placed a crucifix on his bare chest. It's far too big, thought the doctor, outlandishly Catholic; as baroque as the man's scarred torso. He sensed the widow facing him across the bed, but couldn't bring himself to look her in the eye. She turned away, moved calmly to the desk, sat down and began writing something. The doctor saw the priest put the flask of oil in his pocket, and took this as a signal to pack away the electric battery. It had been a long night, he reflected, and now he'd have to look for a new position. A damn shame, the whole thing. He had grown to like the patient and it had been extremely agreeable living in this villa high above the town with its view over the bay, far out into the Mediterranean. He felt himself blushing and that made him blush even more. He turned away from the dead man.

The priest, the doctor's junior by a few years, glanced surreptitiously around the room. On one wall a map of the African continent, bookshelves crowding in on it on either side. The open window made him anxious—everything made him anxious at this point—and through it came rustling noises thatreminded him of other sleepless nights. A drawing to his left, beautiful and incomprehensible, which had disturbed him the minute he had set eyes on it. It reminded him this Englishman had roamed in godless parts where only the ignorant or the arrogant would venture. He had been a notoriously wilful character, but, apart from that, the priest knew virtually nothing about him. Yet another unpleasant duty the bishop had wriggled out of! This was not the first time he'd been called on to administer extreme unction to a total stranger. The bishop had offered him only one piece of guidance: Trust your common sense. Strange advice. But, in any event, he hadn't even had time to get his bearings. The fellow's wife had caught him off guard, pressing him so insistently, demanding so categorically that he give the dying man the last sacraments—as if it were his simple duty as a priest—that he had bowed to her will. He regretted it already. Now she was standing in the open door, giving the doctor an envelope, talking urgently to him about something. Should he speak his mind? The priest accepted her quiet yet determined thanks—what should he say? —and with the thanks the unspoken request that he leave. He smelled her sweat, said nothing. In the hall she held out his coat and her hand. He turned, then stopped—he couldn't go out into the night weighed down like this. He swung round abruptly.

'Signora . . .'

'You will forgive me if I don't walk you to the door?'

'It was wrong. It was a mistake.'


'I must inform the bishop.'

'It was his last wish. You must respect it. Please excuse me, Father, I have a great deal to do. Your worries are unfounded. The bishop is quite aware of this.'

'Signora, so you say, but I lack any such assurance.'

'Please pray for the salvation of his soul. That will be best for all of us. Goodbye, Father.'

She spent two days at his deathbed, occasionally interrupted in her prayers and conversations by people coming to pay their last respects. On the third day she woke the maid earlier than usual. The woman threw a shawl over her nightdress and felt her way through the woollen darkness to the shed where the gardener slept. She called but got no answer until she gave his door a clout with a shovel.

'Anna,' he cried, 'has something bad happened again?'

'The mistress needs you,' she told him, adding: 'right away.'

'Have you laid in firewood yet, Massimo?'

'Yes, Signora, last week, when it turned cold. We've got enough . . .'

'I'd like you to make a fire.'

'In the garden, not too near to the house, but not too far down either.'

He built a small bonfire, like the ones in his village at solsticetime. The exertion warmed him a little but the heavy dew and his sodden toes made him look forward to a good blaze. Anna came out with a cup in her hand, her hair tangled like brushwood twigs. He smelt the coffee as he took it from her.

'Will it burn?'

'As long as it doesn't start raining.'

He bent over the cup as if he were trying to make out something in the liquid, and took a loud sip.

'Should I light it?'

'No. Who knows what she wants. Better wait.'

The bay grew light; a three-master dropped its sails. Trieste awoke to the sound of one-horse carriages and porters. The mistress strode across the lawn in one of her heavy, full dresses.

'Light it.'

He obeyed. Burn, burn, bride of the sun, blaze, blaze, consort of the moon, he whispered to the first flames. His father's solstice song. The mistress came over and stood so close he found it hard not to flinch. She held out a book.

'Throw this in!'

She had almost touched him. He sensed something helpless in her order; she wouldn't throw it in herself. He ran his fingers over the binding, the worn patches and the stitching, and stepped back from the flames a little, stroking the leather, searching for a memory, until he realised what it felt like—the scar on his eldest child's back.

The Collector of Worlds
A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton
. Copyright (c) by Iliya Troyanov . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2009

    Didn't Get It

    This book was on my Wish List for a long time before I decided to purchase it. I wish I would have deleted it. Maybe a more sophisticated reader could have appreciated it, but I just didn't get it. I found it difficult to follow and could not get into the story.

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  • Posted March 15, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This is a terrific biographical fictional account

    In the nineteenth century Sir Richard Francis Burton is a military officer, spy and amateur anthropologist. He learns two local languages so that he can intermingle with the natives more freely; this enhances his work as an espionage agent and his passion as an anthropologist, but especially with courtesan Kundalini.

    When his military career ends due to a report on brothel use by the army, he leaves India. He uses his ability to speak Hindustani and Gujarati to masquerade as an Indian doctor on a pilgrimage to Mecca.

    Sir Richard and John Speke journey to explore the Nile. They meet many tribes as they travel from one lake to another with Sir Richard marveling at each culture while John loathes the savage beasts as much as he detests his disgusting companion.

    This is a terrific biographical fictional account that brings to life the three prime Burton adventures. Amazingly in spite of Burton starring in each, they are radically different as if there are three well written novellas connected by the brazen hero. His India escapade is highlighted more by Kundalini than Burton as she fosters his interest in Eastern philosophy, religion, folk stories, and exotic sex. His Saudi saga provides vivid insight into an illegal pilgrimage to Mecca, but it is Burton's daring masquerade that hooks the audience. Finally, the contrast between the two explorers is wider than the width of the continent yet it is the deep look at the tribes that will fascinate fans. Using real correspondence, events, places and people, Iliya Troyanov provides an excellent nineteenth century tale based on the real world adventures of Sir Richard Burton.

    Harriet Klausner

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