Richard Francis Burton was a British officer, explorer and scholar of Eastern societies. The Bulgarian-born German writer Troyanov transformed Burton's life into a fantastic novel.
"Soon he was convincing himself if he could think and see and feel just like one of us. He started to believe that rather than wearing a disguise, what he was doing was transforming himself."
This is how the protagonist of The Collector of Worlds is described at one point in the novel. The Englishman Richard Francis Burton slipped into many roles during his lifetime. He was like a human chameleon, someone who didn't just take an interest in foreign cultures but breathed them in, soaking up everything that spoke to him far away from his English homeland.
Burton was born in 1821 in the southwest English county of Devon and died in 1891 in the multi-ethnic city of Trieste, in present-day Italy. He was one of the British Empire's most flamboyant figures during the 19th century — and that certainly means something in a global empire that was not exactly lacking in original personalities.
A fantastic life makes for exciting literature
But how do you turn a life bursting with anecdotes, culture clashes and personal dramas into a novel? Troyanov cleverly achieved this in his 2006 book The Collector of Worlds. He selected three chapters of Burton's exciting biography and fleshed them out with literary life — fantasy, fictional dialogue and a ton of juicy atmospheric descriptions.
"Stuffed to bursting, the city let out a belch from time to time. Everything smelled as if it was being eaten away by gastric juices. Figures lay by the roadside in the last throes of a fitful, half-digested sleep. A spoon sliced through the flesh of an overripe papaya; feet sweated coriander on their way back from market."
That's not a passage by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, nor is it by Salman Rushdie. It was written by a German author. With all due respects to the achievements of German-language writers of the last decade, The Collector of Worlds is a book that doesn't give a first-time reader the impression that is has sprung from the pen of a German-speaking author.
Trojanov accompanies the British diplomat and explorer Burton to British India, the Arabian Peninsula and East African lakes, telling his exciting life tales. In India, the art of love is at the center of the story; in the Arab world, it's Burton's incredible journey to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, closed off to Christians; finally, in East Africa, the focus turns to malaria and its creeping power of decay that Burton struggles to cope with.
A novel about cultural encounters
Troyanov presents all this to the astonished reader along with a tremendous amount of detail, a wealth of brilliant natural descriptions and characters of every complexion. The Collector of Worlds is a magnificent book about a man of multiple identities. It's a novel about cultural collision. And that's why it is as relevant today as it was in 2006 when it was published in Germany.
Iliya Troyanov: The Collector of Worlds, Faber & Faber (German title: Der Weltensammler, 2006). English translation: Will Hobson.
Troyanov himself is somewhat of a collector of worlds. Born in Sofia, he grew up in eastern Europe, Kenya and Germany. After a stay in France, he studied in Germany before traveling to India and South Africa. He returned to Germany and finally settled in Austria. Troyanov writes novels, essays, poems and travel books, among other things. He is also a publisher and promotes literature from around the world.