Books Richard Burton travelled the globe, charted its cultures - and sometimes infiltrated them with disguises.
The secret pilgrim
Richard Burton travelled the globe, charted its cultures - and sometimes infiltrated them with disguises. Kanishk Tharoor reads a novelisation of the explorer's life. The Collector of Worlds Iliya Troyanov (translated from German by William Hobson) Faber and Faber Dh54 It's almost impossible to build an empire without shape-shifters. In moulding a world full of differences, conquerors inevitably make some subjects into liminal figures with multiple roles: intermediaries, informants and spies. Few more illustrious servants of empire took on this burden than Richard Francis Burton, a 19th-century British agent, traveller and master of disguise. He most famously posed as Mirza Abdullah, an Indo-Persian dervish, to perform the haj in 1853 - surely the ultimate shape-shifting subterfuge for a European in the Middle East at the time. Burton's account of the pilgrimage, along with those of voyages in the Indian subcontinent, east and west Africa, and South America, made him a celebrity back in Britain. For his contemporaries, Burton was a kind of "Renaissance explorer", celebrated not only for his intrepid travels but also for his knowledge of the peoples he encountered, an understanding so seemingly encyclopaedic that he could masquerade as one of them.
It is the thrill of this possibility - of inhabiting a purely foreign persona - that animates Iliya Troyanov's fascinating and frustrating recent novel, The Collector of Worlds, an exploration of Burton's life. It is also the conceit that has tarnished the shape-shifter's once-glowing reputation. His writings - as fluent and energetic as their author - are today infamous among postcolonial critics. According to the late Edward Said and others, Burton's travelogues are insidious examples of the 19th century "Orientalist" project: in trying to explain the Orient to a western, increasingly imperial-minded audience, Burton participated in the casting of the Middle East as an "Other", a composite of stereotypes and fantasies in opposition to which Europe moulded its ideologies of empire. Whether one broadly agrees with Said or not, it is undeniable that, when first published, Burton's many writings on the Middle East suggested an intellectual conquest of Islam, charting with apparent authority and relentless detail the habits, mores and beliefs of the Muslim world. They told a western audience that the Orient was not an impenetrable murk, but rather an almost cartoonlike world populated by convenient, reassuring stereotypes - a place within the remit of European knowledge and control.
Burton was convinced that his work was not remotely insidious, but instead rather practical. "It would be difficult," he wrote, "to supply a better illustration of that popular axiom, 'Knowledge is power', than the conduct of Orientals to those who understand them, compared with their contempt felt, if not expressed, for the ignorant." But Burton was not a dispassionate observer of "Oriental" affairs. Instead he stars in each narrative of adventuring daring-do as the protagonist, the central figure in his own elaboration of the "East". In the preface of Pilgrimage to Al Madinah and Meccah, his most famous travelogue, Burton recognises and refuses to apologise for the "egotistical semblance" of his work, even if some ungenerous critics may see his narrative as pieced-together "outpourings of a mind full of self".
Said pounced on Burton's ego, insisting that his view of the Orient was inextricably enmeshed with his heroic, pioneering view of himself. "[Burton] seems to have taken a special sort of infantile pleasure in demonstrating that he knew more than any other professional scholar," Said writes in Orientalism, "that he had acquired many more details than they had, that he could handle the material with more freshness and tact than they." Dipping into Pilgrimage, one quickly runs up against an exhaustive yet sparkling evocation of Oriental behaviour: a 215-word description of the peculiar manners with which an Indian Muslim drinks a glass of water (a process that, according to Burton, amounts to a series of religious declarations, grunts and swallows). Passages like these - colourful, lengthy and ever-so-slightly supercilious - define Burton's writing; his painstaking use of detail is calculated to impress, to conjure a sense of authority and to cudgel his competitors. He spends many pages correcting other scholars and observers on the finer points of "eastern manners". Only he truly understands the breadth of Oriental life, only he has fully unravelled its codes, only he can navigate its alien maze of rules. According to Said:
"What is never far from the surface of Burton's prose is another sense it radiates, a sense of assertion and domination over all the complexities of Oriental life. Every one of Burton's footnotes... was meant to be a testimony to his victory over the system of Oriental knowledge... For even in Burton's prose we are never directly given the Orient; everything about it is presented to us by way of Burton's knowledgeable (and often prurient) interventions, which remind us repeatedly how he had taken over the management of Oriental life for the purposes of his narrative. And it is this fact that elevates Burton's consciousness to a position of supremacy over the Orient."
Apologists for the 19th century often protest at Said's uncompromising critiques of western Orientalists, arguing that such men travelled east in good faith and with genuine curiosity. But few such excuses can be made for Burton. The crude and deeply politicised "management of Oriental life" permeates his work. From the disdainful remove of a puppeteer stringing along a cast of shadow figures, he hoards innumerable facts and vivid sketches, all the while repeating essential stereotypes: Indians are a "cowardly and slavish people"; Africans are "headstrong and unreasoning"; and the mental life of the Arabs is one that savours the "animal existence, the passive enjoyment of mere sense; the pleasant languor, the dreamy tranquillity, the airy castle-building, which in Asia stand in lieu of the vigorous, intensive, passionate life of Europe". This palette of predictable racist sentiment was rounded by an equally predictable fascination with the women of the Orient. While not fantasising about the secret life of the female harem, Burton indulged in more pedestrian romps through the brothels of the east (a popular pastime of Orientalist travellers, including the French novelist Gustave Flaubert). One does not need Said's astute analysis of Burton's attitudes towards women to cringe at the unsavoury glee with which the explorer repeatedly greets the sight of "the unveiled face of a pretty woman".
In fairness, Burton was writing for an eager audience, a British public that wanted to be drawn into the Orient while simultaneously being assured of the West's fundamental superiority. If this relationship - between a British adventurer and his European readership - governs Burton's travelogues, Troyanov's The Collector of Worlds shifts the centre of gravity back east. Divided into three parts, the novel first follows Burton through his time in India, then places his pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina at its core, and concludes with his later voyages to the great lakes of southern African in search of the source of the Nile. The most intriguing and successful conceit of the novel is its narrative structure. Each section consists of passages from Burton's points of view interspersed with commentary on Burton by fictional "indigenous" characters: a servant and a scribe in India; Ottoman and Arab officials in Mecca conducting an investigation after the publication of Burton's Pilgrimage in Europe; and the Zanzibari guide Sidi Mubarak Bombay, reminiscing about taking Burton and the English adventurer James Hanning Speke into the heart of Africa. In rendering Burton's fictional observations of the Orient alongside examinations of Burton himself, Troyanov deprives him of his privileged distance; the watcher gets watched.
Unfortunately, this turning of the lens is not as revelatory as one would hope. The Burton of this novel is a fairly unfathomable character, inexplicably opaque in some places, fitfully emotional elsewhere. Any reader of the real Burton will find it difficult to recognise the shadowy, melancholic figure presented by The Collector of Worlds. Gone are the firm convictions and mirthful musings; in their places is a kind of patchy, existential angst.
Troyanov clearly tried to create a character at home nowhere, restless and fundamentally alone in the vast world. He is certainly not your typical imperial officer. Burton finds the conversation of fellow colonial officers distasteful; he prefers the company of foreign wisdom (a conveniently encyclopaedic Hindu guru in Gujarat, for instance) and foreign women. He experiences a powerful and ineffable sense of belonging while on pilgrimage in Arabia. And he cuts a much milder, less arrogant figure than his gun-toting and thuggish compatriot Speke when travelling through Africa. Sadly, these are but moments and impressions. Burton as a character seems stitched together from ideas and events, devoid of coherent personality. This failure is best illustrated by the novel's half-hearted suggestion that Burton's conversion to Islam for the purposes of the pilgrimage was more real than feigned. It would be quite an inversion if Burton - who, through deceit and disguise, made the Middle East "known" to the West - had in truth let Islam rule his internal life. But given only fragments of an individual, one can't gauge the implications of this outlandish possibility.
One expects more from Troyanov's pen. Like Burton, he is an accomplished travel writer, particularly of South Asia and Africa. Unlike Burton, he knows how to subtly navigate around the pitfalls of writing about foreigners and foreign places. He is also at least aware of the postcolonial critique of 19th-century Orientalists and other adventuring westerners. After all, Troyanov is a Bulgarian now ensconced in the German world of letters, having successfully crossed that chasm between "eastern" and "western" Europe, a gulf still filled with fantasies and rude stereotypes. He is better placed than most to treat the figure of Burton with imagination and sharp sensitivity.
A truly rewarding portrait of Burton, however, would not have simply conjured a brooding global flanneur. Instead it would have stayed true to the brash imperial servant that he was, and wrestled with the complex dynamics at work in his relationships, "discoveries" and imaginings of the world. From such excavations, a more honest and human image of the adventurer would emerge. Burton himself hints at this possibility in those rare moments when he is not lording over his surroundings. In one scene in Pilgrimage, for example, he falls into a kind of reverie while navigating the dense, moonlit streets of old Cairo. There is a rare stillness in his description (too long to quote in full) that belies his usual know-it-all effervescence. He wanders beneath "deep verandahs" and "gigantic brackets and corbels", through "blind wynds" and past the "massy buttresses" of mosques. The thicket of architecture and woodwork closes in upon him like a phantom world in the half-light. "Briefly," he writes, "the whole view is so strange, so fantastic, so ghostly that it seems preposterous to imagine that in such places human beings like ourselves can be born, and live through life, and carry out the command 'increase and multiply', and die."
This is indeed a moment of deep alienation, of facing the "Other". It nevertheless offers a glimpse at an unfamiliar humility in Burton. More often than not, he retreated behind a veil of assumptions that he felt sure was real knowledge of the Orient. It was this confidence and certainty that allowed him to shape-shift his way to Mecca. But in the moonlight of old Cairo, Burton succumbed to that very un-imperial feeling: awe.
Kanishk Tharoor, a frequent contributor to the Review, is an editor at OpenDemocracy.