“Hey Marcel, I think your review is awful”: My 2014 in Book Reviews

10922461_10205789576805726_6206837516593422556_nSo in one of the few comments I get, it was pointed out that 5 years ago, I published a less than stellar review. So…that’s true. As I said in my autumn announcement, I was trying to rev up my reviewing last year. If you know this blog and all the time it’s been around, you may not have noticed the near coma it was in for a few years. Since my announcement I published a few reviews. None of them are close reading analyses, and similarly awful as the incriminated 2009 review. They just offer an opinion. It’s 10 reviews overall. which sounds like little, but in 2013 I merely put up 5 reviews and 2012 only 3. That means I wrote more last year than in the two previous years put together (it was 9 reviews in 2011, so more than that, too). Might not be a lot, but I’m mostly happy with this. Below is an overview of the books I reviewed.

I reviewed Damon Galgut’s debut called The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs. I am a fan of the writer. I think that shows in my review.

I reviewed Denise Mina’s crime novel Field of Blood, which is a more than solid entry in the genre, heightened by its perceptiveness of social and gender issues.

I reviewed Lawrence Norfolk’s most recent book John Saturnall’s Feast. Norfolk is one of my favorite writer and parts of the review ended up being a comment on his career so far, to contextualize my disappointment with what, really, is an excellent novel.

I reviewed Ilija Trojanow’s Global Warming novel EisTau. It hasn’t been translated yet but it should. It’s very good and should lend itself well to translations.

I reviewed Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, a YA novel on suicide and mental illness. My review has a few rants on YA books as well as generally books on suicide.

I reviewed Jen Williams’s debut fantasy novel The Copper Promise, which is a more than solid entry in its genre. Great fun. The review doubles as a review of Wiebe and Upchurch’s first Rat Queens trade which is fantastic.

I reviewed John Irving’s most recent book In One Person. Irving is one of my favorite novelists. It shows in my review. Ron Charles calls Irving “America’s most uneven great writer”. He’s not wrong. In One Person, however, is one of his very best books.

I reviewed Joanna Rakoff’s memoir My Salinger Year, which is not a great read, but might be a good gift? This is the only pan I wrote this year.

I reviewed the first four trades of Jason Aaron’s Scalped. Aaron is very good. Scalped is very good. There are problems with it. I get a bit righteous about them towards the end.

As my final review of 2014 I reviewed Patrick Modiano’s debut novel La place de l’étoile, which doubles as an assessment of the 2014 Nobel Prize winner. I was very unhappy about that win, and I *might* have yelled about it on Twitter. In my review/comment I chose to emphasize what I like about his work.

Have a happy 2015.

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Ilija Trojanow: The Lamentations of Zeno

Trojanow, Ilija (2011), EisTau, Hanser

ISBN 9783446237575

[translated into English by Phillip Boehm as
Trojanow, Ilija (2016), The Lamentations of Zeno, Verso Books

ISBN 9781784782191]

ZenoA special subcategory of the writers who write great books and then leave their readers hanging (as discussed in my last review) are the writers who write one great novel and then just stop writing fiction altogether. Some, like Harper Lee, stay silent, some, like Arundhati Roy, continue writing prolifically, but just not fiction. That second category often contains activists, who, as they age, find that their time is better spent writing essays and speeches rather than novels and stories. Ilija Trojanow (sometimes inexplicably spelled “Iliya Troyanov“ in English) is a recent example of this. Between 1996 and 2006, he published several exquisite travelogues, as well as 3 novels. A debut about arriving in Germany or rather coming to terms with life as a migrant (1996), a second novel using the languages of Science Fiction (1997, see my review here) and finally, Der Weltensammler (2006), his breakthrough achievement that won him a multitude of prizes and sold a large amount of copies. You can not only read my review of it, you can even read it in English translation, as it has in fact been translated into English and many other languages. That last book, a monumental novel about Richard Burton combined his interests in cultural exchanges with his recurrent topics of migration and identity. Even his companion nonfiction volume about Burton sold well. Trojanow seemed to have arrived. And since then – nothing. Or rather: no new fiction. He has been publishing copiously on the surveillance state, on ecological issues, on racism; plus, he has edited a multitude of books. Trojanow, all in all, has to be considered one of Germany’s leading public intellectuals. And yet, selfishly, I was upset that he did not write fiction. Until, that is, 2011, when a slim new novel came out. And what a good novel it is! Published in German as EisTau (~ice thaw), it is a short but dense novel about global warming and one man’s outrage and obsession. It does not contain long diatribes about the state of the world, but at the same time, it’s just as much polemic as it is a novel. If not for Trojanow’s prodigious literary talent, this novel could have sunk like a stone. Instead, we’re offered a complex and very literary book that is highly recommended and deserves to be read carefully. And 2 years after I wrote this review, it has finally been published in English translation by Verso Books as The Lamentations of Zeno.

The Lamentations of Zeno is the story of Zeno, a depressed geologist who has spent the last few years of his life so far offering lectures to tourists on a cruise into the Antarctica. The cruise apparently features experts from areas like geology and biology who help tourists to contextualize the events they see and learn about that cold part of the world. We learn about his life story from himself: most of the novel is framed as being entries in his notebook. Not only does he tell the story from his point of view, but the notebook as an object itself, as well as the writing process is references throughout. It’s not a diary. These are literary, reasoned accounts written by a man who is tired of being a human being, as he says near the end of the novel. They follow two timelines. One follows in strict chronological order the events on the ship in the present tense, the others are memories of his relatively recent past. About halfway through the novel we learn about the catastrophe in his life that leads him onto his current path: a glacier specialist at a university in Munich, he finds out one day that the glacier he’s been monitoring almost obsessively, is irrevocably dying. And subsequently, the same happens to his life because he stops caring. He drops out of the university, gets left by his wife, and finally signs up for this stint on the Antarctica cruise. He has been known to be cranky on the ship, but this time, something snaps and the trips slowly but surely steers into a disaster. I am not spoiling this book because we are apprised fairly early of events on the ship by another kind of chapter in the book. Alternating with Zeno’s notebook, we are given short two-page chapters that are a cauldron of voices. TV ads, snippets of songs, etc. But they are not just random cutups of cultural noise. They also contain snippets of conversations with former passengers as well as, at the bottom of each of these ‘noise’ chapters, a bolded “breaking news” section that tells us of the dramatic events onboard the ship.

DSC_0226The noise chapters have a function in the narrative by foreshadowing the events of the notebook, but they also have a different role: in their noisiness they contrast with the quiet of the ice, offering us a human counterpart to the serene elegance of nature. It reminded me of nothing so much as Jelinek’s mastery of voices and allusion, especially in Die Kinder der Toten. Jelinek blends this noise into her own prose, while Trojanow’s method seems close to montage. It would seem that these alternating chapters introduce the city-scape noises of Dos Passos’ trilogy or Döblin’s Berlin novels into a kind of pastoral novel, but I think we would be mistaken about Trojanow’s aims here. Jelinek is a critical writer, not of a specific issue, but of the hate-filled structures of Western societies, skewering targets from misogyny to racism and ecological catastrophe. In The Lamentations of Zeno, we get a similar sense of broad disappointment with the direction of mankind. Critics have dismissed Trojanow’s novel as an ecological screed that has no literary value, but this is a superficial reading. Even without defending its literary value (which I will in a moment), even its polemical intentions far exceed just ecology. In the very first chapter, in an aside, we meet Filippino workers; we learn, with the deployment of just a few sentences, how much the globalized economy is built on the exploitation of poor and third world workers, a topic that Trojanow comes back to. We also get a sense of how globalized narratives are built, how people travel, and how knowledge is dispersed. When Zeno expresses his unhappiness with being human, he doesn’t merely refer to humans as those who subjugate and destroy nature – he also refers to the way mankind treats its disadvantaged and oppressed members. His criticism is global and personal. It’s important to note that all the events are motivated by Zeno’s personal unhappiness, his personal obsession and disappointment. We are not supposed to read Zeno as a relatable everyman whose opinions we should emulate or admire. Zeno has lost all regards for the fate of the human race. In one of the most memorable passages, he describes himself rooting for avalanches in news reports that show the cascading ice and snow swallowing a village.

EistauWith this personal nature comes a narrative that is increasingly unreliable. After all, what we read is basically Zeno’s manifesto, a way to describe how he arrived at doing what he did. We are clearly supposed to read this book as being set in the tradition of Italo Svevo’s La coscienza di Zeno. Svevo’s book poses as the life story of Zeno, a middle aged Italian, one of modern’s literature’s most famous unreliable narrators, written by Zeno himself during/for psychoanalytic treatment. In his book we are offered accounts of his life, his marriage, his relationship to his father. Zeno’s ruminations on his life and his illness lead to the observation that his illness mirrors or corresponds to mankind’s sickness. This step from sentiments like Lowell’s “I myself am hell” to the idea that the narrator’s mind is not the only one that’s ‘not right’ is inherited from Svevo. Additionally, there’s a German-language (though mostly through Swiss writers) tradition following Svevo of novels which offer psychoanalytically prompted ‘autobiographies’, but this time the goal is to explain a crime or catastrophe that has happened. Of this tradition, Max Frisch is probably the writer most well known to non-German audiences. This referential pattern suggests that Trojanow’s Zeno, even though we only learn of his intent to do something out of the ordinary halfway through the story, must have intended something of the sort all along. There’s a second way in which the two Zenos, the one from Bavaria and his Italian predecessor, are connected, and that’s their relationship to women. Anyone who’s read Svevo’s book is left with the impression that Zeno’s relationship to the female gender can be a bit arduous at times, and significantly contributes to his malaise. There’s a certain amount of misogyny written into the novel, which helps us nail down the slippery character of Zeno a bit more. With Trojanow’s Zeno, we have a similar situation and just as with Svevo’s counterpart, we can’t but feel that his explanations and descriptions are a bit self serving.

There are two women we get to know at some length, and then there’s the female tourists on the ship. The first woman is Zeno’s wife Helene. She is painted as a superficial, spiteful woman, interested in material values beyond everything else. She’s portrayed as unhappy: unhappy about Zeno’s obsession, unhappy about his academic income, unhappy about the cheap trips abroad they take together, unhappy about the apartment and possessions they can afford. On a trip to Spain, Zeno and Helene cannot be happy about the same things, and the narrator Zeno puts his now ex-wife into her place by placing a lesson on humility at the end of his account of the Spain trip. There’s no intimacy or passion between the two. The other woman we get to know is Zeno’s current girlfriend Paulina, who works on the ship and with whom he has a torrid relationship that lasts just as long as the cruise. Am attempt to continue the relationship beyond the ship has failed because Paulina and Zeno find each other boring when exposed for a long time. His treatment of her is a bit condescending and it somehow includes awkwardly written sex scenes, just to somehow drive home the image of her as a loving but temporary sex kitten. Zeno’s discussion of the female lecturers and tourists are similarly condescending. He may be aware of a broad swath of social issues, but his own sexism clearly escapes him. It is due to the masterful art of Trojanow that our attention is directed towards that subject. It’s implicit in the descriptions but his narrator is not aware of it. Without broaching the question of intentionality, it’s still not clear how central this aspect is to the book, how much it is supposed to tie into its other questions and concerns. I have a tendency to assume that books I generally like use prejudice as active elements rather than say that these books are racist or misogynist. In this case, the background of antarctic exploration justifies, I think, this charitable reading.

GetImageIn The Lamentations of Zeno, I think, there’s a broad discussion of masculinity and destruction. Exploration and destruction, we learn are connected, and Zeno himself, once pushed hard enough, decides on being destructive. The history of antarctic exploration, for a long time, was a history of men doing manly things. Men enduring pain, men persevering, men rivaling other men. The first woman to set foot in the Antarctic didn’t do so until 1935, and she was the wife of the captain of a whaling ship. This is not due to a lack of interest of women in exploration. In fact, women wrote a rather famous letter to Shackleton in 1914 and Shackleton declined because there were “no vacancies for the opposite sex”. As in many other areas dominated by men, women’s absence is not due to female disinterest, but due to men imagining and enforcing gender roles, something that continues to this day, as the harassment of female participants in the programming and gaming culture proves. This separatist mindset also fits the broader mindset regarding nature. As the great ecologist William Cronin suggested, we live with the cultural paradigms established by nature writing, including travelogues, which provide an account of nature as something separate and apart from human beings, and this criticism includes ecologists as well as writers celebrating the use and exploitation. The novel, by offering us a closed, fixed (in the page of a notebook) story, which it undercuts, asks us to establish alternative narratives. There’s a quiet line that connects Trojanow’s work to stories like Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Sur”, her story about female adventurers who reach the south pole before Shackleton in a privately finded expedition in 1909. Their “desire was pure as the polar snows: to go, to see – no more, no less.“ The lack of such counter narratives in the book itself contributes to the desperation. Zeno has no solutions, only anger and frustration and at no point does he manage to look past his known points of reference for other ideas. This, one suspects, is the call to arms of Trojanow the activist. Write and think solutions, offer counter narratives, understand the urgency of the desperation and challenge it. Trojanow’s writing is full of ellipses, and he uses every part of the novel to his advantage, creating multiple narrative spaces. Ilija Trojanow is a very good writer and The Lamentations of Zeno is a very good novel. Go read it, but do it carefully, look into the spaces between and below the language.

****

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Short Circuit: Ilija Trojanow’s “Autopol”

Trojanow, Ilija (1997), Autopol, dtv
ISBN 3-423-24114-4

While not conceiving or constructing it first, the Autobahnen, the German highway system, is still considered to be one of Adolf Hitler’s lasting achievements by many Germans, not just revisionists. In his second novel, “Autopol”, Ilija Trojanow digs deeply into the tar to excavate a horrific dystopia, published in 1997, on the heels of his widely praised debut novel “Die Welt ist groß und Rettung lauert überall” (1996), as part of an Internet project, as a “novel in progress”, published in small, hyper-linked installments. Since then he has been traveling the world and went on to published multiple travel accounts of India, Bulgaria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Mecca, he has also been writing essays, managing his own small publishing house (all of his books, incidentally, were published elsewhere). With all that, it took him 9 years to finish his third novel, “Der Weltensammler”, which I’ve reviewed here. “Der Weltensammler” is, as I said then, a masterpiece, frightfully aware and complex, a mature work in every way, a warm, full-bodied read. “Autopol”, in contrast, is short and very lean, almost angular; it’s also considerably less complex, serving its ideas up hot from Trojanow’s excellent mind.

When it was finished and, finally, published in book form, for a while readers had the choice to read the paper copy of it or the hypertext online version. All I had was the book itself, and while I can see how the novel would have worked as a hypertext, I do not have the option of reading it as such any more, since the online version has disappeared. Contrary to my expectations, ordering all the bits and pieces and binding them into a single book may have rendered the whole enterprise less interesting, rather than more, but that’s purely speculative, of course. The actual book on my desk is certainly worth reading and recommended. It’s a science fiction thriller, told in very small chapters. There are dialogs, conventional narratives, photographs, copies of press clippings, and an official memorandum. The plot is rather conventional, but cutting up the narrative and offering several voices the opportunity to tell the story makes for a quick and varied read. The novel consists of three sections; while the basic mixture of formal genres within each section stays roughly the same, the headings change. This may appear to be an inconsequential change, something that could be seen as simple trickery, but “Autopol” not only relies heavily on such changes but it also draws much strength and insight from them. It’s power is not, after all, derived from the writing itself, but from other elements: scenario, ideas, and formal tricks. The writing, I’m sorry to say, is weak, though it is never actually bad: somehow Trojanow always manages to be at least functional. He conveys what he has to in a decent style without the stylistic embarrassments that plague so much of current German fiction.

The basic idea is simple: a political dissident, Sten Rasin, is imprisoned in a huge prison colony, the eponymous Autopol, where criminals are dropped into to disappear; Rasin subsequently stages a large-scale prison escape attempt, in the course of which hostages are taken and people are killed. In Autopol, there is no rehabilitation, it’s a place where those end up whom the society wishes gone. Thus far, nothing new. The structure of the prison, however, is novel. It’s not a region or a place or, God forbid, one of those prison planets so ubiquitous in SF movies. It is a system of highways, a closed circuit that is cut up into four sectors, each of which has four rest stops. In between the rest stops, cars ceaselessly circulate. These cars are the prisons, and their drivers are called pilots, since the cars are apparently meant to be a mix of high tech buses and modern trains. The rest stops are solely meant for the drivers. Prisoners only get off the buses when they are sick or dead. They eat, sleep and live on the road. This system, closed off the the world bustling on outside, has developed a dynamic of its own. It is not run by the government, it is run by a company; the judiciary has almost unchecked powers to drop people into the abyss that is the Autopol and neither the company nor the people outside care. As it turns out, by now, even if they did care, the system cannot be effectively supervised by the people. Criminals are not just abandoned in the prison; by dropping them into the closed system of the Autopol, they are dropped out of the “open” system of the society outside.

This scenario will evoke several unpleasant historical and cultural associations in most readers. There are roughly three layers of significance. The first, and most unpleasant, is the most obvious one. In my first sentence I mentioned the Führer, and the Third Reich is a central reference here. One of the most salient associations, I think, are the cattle wagons used to move Jews through Europe to their fatal destination. As with the Autopol, the railways were a kind of closed system, with most onlookers pursuing a don’t ask, don’t tell policy in regard to the prisoners. The context here is different, of course, but Trojanow is concerned with the frightening ability of a society to cast out its members without looking twice and asks how this ties into our notions of narrative. “Autopol” dwells quite extensively upon the intricacies of speech and discourse, partly by using different genres, as mentioned, partly by the inclusion of an undercover journalist, who is determined to ‘get the truth’. This is the second major reference, equal parts Natural Born Killers and Katharina Blum. Journalistic ethos and narrative truth are both important parameters here, and questions arise as to how the media shapes our understanding of the world etc. If this sounds unspectacular, it is.

This part of “Autopol” is tedious and repetitive. Much of the resulting boredom is due to Trojanow’s decision to set the novel in a world very similar to the one he lived in then (1997 Germany). He restricts the SF elements to the Autopol. This, of course, makes some of the novel’s predecessors such as Böll all the more obvious, and severely restricts the scope of its criticism. That’s something that we often find in fiction writers who turn to the tools of SF for inspiration, but shy away from going all the way. So ’tis with “Autopol” as well: by restricting the amount of SF elements, Trojanow loses many advantages the genre offers. This restriction is clearly intended to generate immediacy, to make the criticism more directly relevant to today’s readers, and, in this, the novel definitely succeeds. Trojanow is a very good writer, too good not to make this book work at least at one level. His decisions, i.e. opting for sound bites rather than longer prose sequences, and for immediacy rather than complexity, mar the novel, I think. As it is, it is highly readable, well executed, but never rises beyond “good”. Good, but, I fear, forgettable, like a good, strong drink.

A drink, that only speaker/readers of German are able to enjoy, so far. As of today, only three of Trojanow’s books have been translated into English. Adding “Autopol” (or his debut novel!) would not be the worst of ideas. Get to it.

Field Work: Ilija Trojanow’s “Der Weltensammler”

Trojanow, Ilija (2007), Der Weltensammler, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag
ISBN 978-3-423-13581-8
[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.

Pilgern

Der Pilger sollte ausreichend Geld für seine Familie hinterlassen, und keine Schulden; selbst wenn sein Nachbar Not leidet, sagt ein Hadith, muß er die Reise aufschieben. […] Am wichtigsten aber ist, daß der Gläubige sich vorab von seinen Lastern und Schwächen befreit. Die Hadsch wird ihn zwar von allen Sünden reinigen, aber sie wird nicht einen besseren Menschen aus ihm machen. Wer als Lügner oder Heuchler aufbricht, wird als Lügner oder Heuchler heimkehren. Die Hadsch ist kein Selbstzweck, sie wirkt nicht an sich.

aus Ilija Trojanows Büchlein “Zu den heiligen Quellen des Islam: Als Pilger nach Mekka und Medina” Malik, 2004.