[Translated into English by William Hobson as The Collector of Worlds (Faber and Faber, 2008)]
As an introductory remark of sorts: when Trojanow’s novel was translated into English, his name was strangely transliterated into “Ilya Troyanov”. Strange, since he, although he is of Bulgarian descent and has lived both in India and South Africa, is German. Thus, they needed, in a way, to transliterate his name back into Bulgarian and then transliterate it into English. Funny thing, when his travel books on the hadj and the Ganges were translated in the “Armchair Traveler” edition, his name was stated correctly (here’s a longish discussion of this) So, this is just me being a pedant, but if any of you wants to go out and buy the book I thought you should know this. Speaking of which: you should read this book. It is among the best German novels I read in 5 years and certainly the best German novel I finished this year.
For me as a reviewer there are two ways to approach this book, because on the one hand it’s highly readable and evocative, a novel of adventures and exotic places, and on the other hand it’s a very smart book about narratives, orientalism, colonialism etc. It makes many of its theoretical points in a quiet manner, sneaking theory onto the reader’s mind, so to say. However, just in case, if I forget to mention this again: this is a gorgeous, fragrant, compelling novel that I can’t imagine anyone not liking. It is a very well written book. With so much of contemporary German literature in a stylistic slump, Trojanow’s clean, complex prose, which is elevated yet highly readable at the same time. It is functional prose, in the very best sense. The language needs to shoulder a huge story, a brilliant narrative structure and evoke three different locales without detracting from either of the three, which is just what it does, providing, additionally, chunks of gorgeous prose scattered all over the 523 pages of my edition.
The novel, consisting of three sections and a coda, follows the life of famous explorer, translator, poet, soldier, sufi Richard Burton. The novel is no biography, it does not claim accuracy. As the author himself says, it is “inspired” by the life and work of Burton and at times strays far from the path of biographical fidelity. The most intriguing experience for me was the fact that I was left not with a desire to read a ‘proper’ biography of Burton but to delve deep into Burton’s own writing. Der Weltensammler is at least as much about the cultures it writes about and the difficulty of writing about culture and biographies as it is about Burton the person. The novel may seem conventional, but any closer reading will reveal it’s anything but. In dealing with three periods of Burton’s life, as a soldier in the British army in India from 1842–1849, as an incognito ethnographer/pilgrim in Medina and Mecca in 1953 and as an explorer, hunting for the sources of the Nile in central Africa with Speke from 1856–1860, it examines the very acquiring knowledge and the product is an eminently readable book that appeals to a vast readership. Reading the novel you can see not Burton’s but Trojanow’s mind work. Each of the three parts is constructed in a different way although they share certain basic properties. They all consist of two strands of narrative: one’s the Burton narrative, written by a third person narrator, sometimes Burton, sometimes omniscient. The second is, let’s say, the informant. The detective. The storyteller. All of these. As the novel proceeds Burton’s voice is more and more muted. Instead of leading us, step by step, into Burton’s mind, we withdraw more and more and see knowledge, doubt and the world as perceived by multiple points of view take center stage. From the very first chapter the voice of the native dominates Burton’s. Der Weltensammler has been criticized repeatedly for failing to render Burton the person in a satisfying way, which is puzzling since the novel clearly has no intention of ever doing so. Reproaching it for failing in an endeavor it never undertook is, to say the least, boneheaded.
The first section treats Burton’s time in British-India where Burton is portrayed as insatiable as far as knowledge and languages are concerned. He takes a teacher and learns several Indian languages, among them Gujarati and Hindustani, as well as studying in-depth Indian culture and religion. He takes a lover (a temple prostitute) and when he is moved to a largely Muslim part of the country he learns their religion and both Persian as well as Arabian. He starts to practice the Muslim faith as a means of mingling with the common (enough) people in disguise. He develops an opinion of how to deal with civil unrest and uprisings and although the reader may have the notion of meeting a tolerant and open man, Burton recommends draconian measures. In the end a scandal and bereavement lead to his leaving the country precipitously, “on sick leave”. This is the whole story. Trojanow, luckily, completely abstains from trying to sound the depths of Burton’s soul, from attempting to find out Burton’s motivations.
The only helping hand he lends the reader is the voice of Ramij Naukaram, who becomes his servant, his mediator between the foreign country and Burton. Naukaram’s voice is recorded because, at the outset of the novel, he seeks out a lahiya, a writer, to write down his story in order to compose a letter of application. Thus, the story is narrated by the third person narrator and Naukaram, who is frequently asked by the lahiya to clear up confusions. The lahiya, it turns out, is as much of an author as he is a human recording device and by and by he fills in narrative gaps in the story. As Naukaram’s audience, he clearly represents the readership of the novel and as an inventive writer he is just as clearly a stand-in for the author. He helps us make sense of the story we are watching unfold. How much of Naukaram’s story is self-serving? How much is, later on, anti-Muslim prejudice? What is the truth? When does it turn to fiction?
Thankfully, there is remarkably little of that popular literary parlor game: letting the native puzzle about white/Christian rituals and customs. This usually contains two elements: making fun of the native’s naiveté and criticizing our own culture. Barely anything of that here. By using Burton’s voice to explicate the British and Christian elements and leaving Naukaram to explain the parts of the story that involve his own culture. Thus far, he seems to be the common figure of informant, something, however, which is both subverted by the fact that his strand contains an Indian recording an Indian, and by the fact that we get a lot of grumbling about the low morals and despicable religion and behavior of Muslims. Naukaram cannot understand why Burton would choose to become Muslim, even for a disguise. We get an outside view from the inside, so to say.
The second part is even more complicated. There is again the Burton strand, yet the second strand contains more elements. Instead of having one man relate a story to a second man, it mostly consists of three man debating Burton’s identity. The three men are the Turkish governor, the Sharif of Mecca and the Kadi. The occasion is Burton’s publication of the “Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah”, wherein he details his pilgrimage in disguise, something which is, if undertaken in bad faith, heretical and blasphemous. The Turkish governor, who appears to have called the meeting, is worrying about something else, however: whether Burton may have been a spy for the British army, paid both to reconnoiter Mecca, Medina and its environs and to sow unrest among the people under Turkish rule. The three of them proceed forthwith to debate this back and forth. In order to arrive at a satisfying conclusion they call witnesses and engage in theological discussions. Here the Burton strand often appears to be a commentary upon the discussion of the three, by depicting situations described by the witnesses from Burton’s angle. There are many details hidden beneath the folds of this construction, some revealed, as in an afterthought, late in the sections, such as Burton’s subterfuges to measure and draw Mecca without anyone noticing. Burton slips on and off the page like the Dervish that he claims to be while traveling. The extent to which identity is subject to interpretation is demonstrated brilliantly, as we see Burton’s honesty being debated.
The third part is the least exciting yet not less enjoyable. This is the part where Burton’s voice finally takes a back seat to the commentary. Here the commentary is, in a way, an insider-outsider-insider, a black slave who ‘returns’, so to say, with the Slave holder culture clearly imprinted upon his mind. The fact that Burton is so subdued here may be due to the fact that Burton is here as ‘himself’, he is not trying to pass himself off as someone he’s not. As the novel clearly demonstrates, however, it is no longer his choice, he has become his masks. This does not lead to a harmonic melting-pot kind of character, however. In his conflicts with the different kinds of ethnicities and religions (and Speke as Brit is but one of them) the difficulties and the possibilities of intercultural communication become clear. Nonetheless, we should never forget that Burton was a soldier and a fighter and although the novel accords little weight to these aspects of his personality, he is, as the title says: a collector of worlds. He had a voracious hunger for other cultures, and although his seniors doubt his loyalty, the Burton represented in the book has his loyalties straight. Everything, from his way in assessing political situations to his attitude to gathering knowledge is clearly routed in his own culture (there are a few telling differences between him and Speke that sent me to look up something in Foucault but I shouldn’t go into these details). The book demonstrates the bonds that knowledge as we see it, are for us and how little, at the same time, we can afford to forgo it.
All this is contained by the Burton described in the book, who is so well contained by the strands of narrative that he never towers over the events and places. Fittingly, the coda is reduced to the one aspect of his person that is never before properly focused on: his beliefs as a Christian. A small investigation is launched to determine whether Burton merits the Catholic burial his wife insists upon. The smallness of the grave serves as a perfect metaphor for the provincialism that Burton tried to escape by trying to become a Weltbürger, a citizen of the world. That he didn’t become one and merely became a Weltensammler is his tragedy and, to an extent, ours. Putting on the news tonight, I sighed quietly.