Monday, May 18, 2009

The Collector of Worlds by Iliya Troyanov (a review)

The Collector of Worlds: A Novel of Sir Richard Francis Burton
4.5 out of 5: The Collector of Worlds tracks infamous explorer Sir Richard Burton on three of his journeys: his adventures in India as a young British officer, his hajj to Mecca disguised as a doctor from India, and his cross-continent trek to discover the source of the Nile deep within Africa. Each segment of Burton's story is its own well-crafted narrative filled with interesting characters and detailed settings, making this book more like three novellas than a single, integrated novel. In each story, Burton’s adventures unfold from the perspective of outside observers, most often those who accompanied him in his travels. This brilliant construct preserves all the awe and mystery that surrounds this eccentric individual. Part old-fashioned adventure tale, part travelogue, part biography, part history, The Collector of Worlds is a rich cabinet of curiosities.

Trayanov’s lush prose—and William Hobson’s able translation—infuse this novel with vibrancy and sensuality. Each of the exotic locales visited by Burton comes alive on the page, like this street scene in Bombay:
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.
Or this description of the deserts of central Africa:
Above them, veils of cloud twine across the highest vault of heaven, far too high for any prayers to reach, while here below everything is scorched by an invisible furnace. This country is a beggar … with jaundiced skin and jutting ribs streaked with dried-up watercourses, the scars left by the floods that last its helpless body year after year.
Trayanov’s lyrical prose and Burton’s old-fashioned and exotic adventures combine to create a thoroughly delightful, and transporting, reading experience.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you reviewed this. It sounds like it has evocative language worth seeking out.

Jen - devourer of books said...

Ditto what rhapsodyinbooks said. I'd heard about this but not anyone's opinion about it, so I'm glad to see this.