This novel brings off a skilful and nuanced representation of the traveller Sir Richard Burton, which could so easily have been no more than a rambunctious portrait of a Great British Eccentric. Like Burton, the Bulgarian-German Iliya Troyanov was put on the road early in life and has lived in different worlds. What he does in this novel, fluently translated by William Hobson, is to filter Burton through different lenses: it's as much a picture of how he was seen as that will-o'-the-wisp, "the man himself".
The novel is constructed in three movements based on three famous journeys: to India, the Mecca hajj in disguise, and the East African hunt for the source of the Nile with John Hanning Speke. In the first, Troyanov invents an encounter between Burton's former servant, Naukaram, and a professional letter-writer, which enables his presence to be conjured through Indian eyes, stripped of any Anglocentric warp. Burton is shown, for all his passionate prejudices, as someone who genuinely listened, eager to learn local languages and describe the customs of the country.
"No one else could enter so easily into another person's world as he could," Naukaram tells his scribe, the latter becoming more and more engaged, adding his own embellishments. Troyanov loves the art of storytelling, and has a real gift for evoking colours, sounds and stenches. His narrators are drunk on the stories through which they pay their own tribute to Burton, that master of self-invention.
Those who provided a backdrop in his books take centre-stage. Troyanov is also fascinated, as was Burton, by the belief systems which clashed in India, Africa and the Middle East. He cleverly sets up a dialogue between Ottoman officials trying to establish Burton's true motives for the hajj. One sceptical bureaucrat opines that because Burton "believes in everything and nothing, he can... transform himself into any precious stone." The "truth" about Burton is somewhere here: the need to re-invent oneself, to experience the freedom of knowledge with optional commitment - the prerogative of the traveller throughout the ages.
The final section of this vividly told novel follows Burton and his testy rival Speke in search of the source of the Nile. Burton's servant, Bombay, who will share the horrors of this journey brought frighteningly alive, watches him observing a fishing village, "like a sponge, absorbing everything, taut, full of avid attention." This capacious, shrewd but non-judgemental narrative derives its strength from that quality.Reuse content