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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Collector of Worlds

Ilija Trojanow

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To purchase The Collector of Worlds

Title: The Collector of Worlds
Author: Ilija Trojanow
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006
Length: 466 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Collector of Worlds - US
The Collector of Worlds - UK
The Collector of Worlds - Canada
Der Weltensammler - Deutschland
Le Collectionneur de mondes - France
  • German title: Der Weltensammler
  • Translated by Will Hobson
  • Shortlisted for German Book Prize, 2006

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Our Assessment:

A- : well-written, appealing approach to an interesting figure

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 23/6/2008 Rose Jacobs
FASz . 5/3/2006 Peter Körte
FAZ . 15/3/2006 Richard Kämmerlings
The Guardian . 28/6/2008 Giles Foden
The Independent . 18/7/2008 Nicholas Murray
The LA Times . 5/5/2009 Richard Zimler
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 25/3/2006 Roman Bucheli
The NY Times Book Rev. . 10/5/2009 Ben Macintyre
The Spectator A 23/7/2008 Christopher Ondaatje
Süddeutsche Zeitung A 18/3/2006 Karl-Markus Gauß
The Telegraph . 14/6/2008 Bharat Tandon
TLS A 13/6/2008 Robert Irwin
Die Welt . 25/3/2006 Uwe Wittstock
Die Zeit A 16/3/2006 Tobias Gohlis

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "The adventures could gallop along, but Troyanov writes with the sort of specificity that makes his readers savour each detail and each line. (...) From the novel’s first line (...) words explode with meaning, descriptions shimmer in new light." - Rose Jacobs, Financial Times

  • "Der Weltensammler kann deshalb nur ein Abenteuerbuch sein, das einen mitnimmt und seine Faszination für den Mann großzügig mit dem Leser teilt. Was es so besonders macht, das ist allerdings nicht bloß sein Held, es ist vor allem Trojanows raffinierte Porträttechnik. Er schlüpft nicht einfach in Burtons Haut." - Peter Körte, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung

  • "Many readers desire the imperious simplicity of linear heroic narrative. But this form can't get much leverage on a planet beset by globalisation, mass migration and environmental collapse. How can narrative deal with these cross-cultural waves, this tumbling down of limits, this collision of multiple worlds ? With its radical code-switching, shifts of perspective and ahead-of-his-time hero who himself knew how to turn barriers into through-ways, The Collector of Worlds triumphantly shows us one method. But we will need others, too. I would not be surprised if Iliya Troyanov were to show us some of those in subsequent books." - Giles Foden, The Guardian

  • "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." - Nicholas Murray, The Independent

  • "Though Troyanov proves himself an able researcher, The Collector of Worlds fails to bring the reader anywhere close to his protagonist's mind or heart -- to give us any insights into his motivations, passions, astonishing linguistic talents or personal demons." - Richard Zimler, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Iliya Troyanov has turned Burton’s unbelievable life into believable fiction, achieving a rounded and satisfying portrait that traditional biography could never match. (...) Troyanov offers no clues as to where history ends and invention begins. (...) Troyanov succeeds at a different level, recreating that hunger for knowledge, hardship and space that was Burton’s distinctive cast of mind, depicting a man at once hard to like and impossible not to admire." - Ben Macintyre, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Troyanov’s sympathetic novel is the product of immense research and understanding. (...) Troyanov’s scholarship has given us a new understanding of Burton’s world. It is an intensely passionate journey, and a wonderful piece of storytelling." - Christopher Ondaatje, The Spectator

  • "(I)t's a novel which despite revelling in storytelling, consciously resists the temptation so common to the genre to string together a row of thrilling episodes and exotic locations just for the effect. (...) The author also manages to keep a distance and ensure the novel doesn't become a Herculean hymn. It remains an unparalleled historical novel, at once exciting and intelligent, colourful and meditative." - Karl-Markus Gauß, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "(M)uch of the novel's narrative interest springs from the way in which Troyanov contrives to have Burton appear as a relief map in others' storytelling (.....) Troyanov's tactful writing recognises the souvenir-hunting impulse without, for the most part, indulging it; in this, he is helped by William Hobson's translation, whose tone and register mould themselves convincingly to different settings" - Bharat Tandon, The Telegraph

  • "It has no overall plot and nothing in particular seems to be at stake. Even so, the merits of Troyanov's re-creation of pivotal episodes in Burton's life are so many and so striking that this does not seem to matter at all. (...) Troyanov, a Bulgarian who wrote this novel in German, is an excellent storyteller, and his intensively researched tale contains vivid scenes of enchantment, erotic encounter and horror. His prose at times comes close to poetry and it has been well translated by William Hobson." - Robert Irwin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Zu den Eigentümlichkeiten des Romans gehört, daß er einen recht uneinheitlichen Tonfall pflegt. Trojanow ist ein hoch gebildeter, kenntnisreicher und auch sprachbewußter Autor. Dennoch wird in vielen Passagen seines Buches nicht anschaulich erzählt, sondern eher spröde referiert. Gelegentlich hat man das Gefühl, der Autor weiß so viel über seinen Helden, daß er immer mehr Ideen und Erwägungen in seinen Text preßt, darüber aber die sinnliche Schilderung der fremden Welten, die Burton erforschte, aus den Augen verliert. Dann wieder scheint sich Trojanow der Reize seines Stoffs zu erinnern und sprachliche Glut gleichsam herbeizwingen zu wollen." - Uwe Wittstock, Die Welt

  • "Natürlich enthält Der Weltensammler jede Menge saftig exotischen Stoff, doch gemessen an dem, was Burton zu bieten hätte, ist Trojanow zurückhaltend geblieben. Denn bei aller Abenteuerlichkeit und Weltensammlerei geht es im Kern um jenen unendlichen und gerade heute höchst aktuellen Dialog über Fremdheit und Fremde. Dem hat Ilija Trojanow in seinem großartigen, Epochen und Kulturen umspannenden Roman eine authentische, moderne und polyfone Stimme gegeben." - Tobias Gohlis, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Der Weltensammler ('The Collector of Worlds') is -- as author Trojanow puts it -- inspired by the life of Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890), the extraordinary and notorious traveller (and translator). The central character is 'Richard Burton' but, though much of the book is based on facts from Burton's life (and incorporates some of his own writing), it is also very freely imagined.
       In three main sections the book focusses on three (relatively early) of Burton's many stations: India, (Saudi) Arabia, and East Africa. Trojanow wisely does not keep the focus entirely on Burton, as each section offers two perspectives: one (mainly) that of the omniscient narrator recounting Burton's life and the episodes in it, the other perspective that of one or more of those who were in close contact with Burton at the same time, who recount their impressions, generally in conversation or interrogation. Jumping back and forth in short chapters between these two versions of events -- the one very personal yet also limited, the other distanced and impersonal but taking in much more -- the narrative is well-paced.
       The book is not only about Burton, but about his changing identities, a process of 'going native' -- and yet also of reaching an understanding of the limitations of trying to become part of another culture. Coming to India, and especially the dreary outpost Baroda, near Bombay, Burton realises that this could easily become a dead end. He sees only one way out, one way to keep himself intellectually engaged -- and also to build for the future:

Es gab nur eine Möglichkeit, sein Leben nicht zu verplempern: Sprachen lernen. Sprachen waren Waffen.

(There was only one thing he could do to avoid wasting his life: learn languages. Languages were weapons.)
       They were weapons -- and also a door, allowing him to pass into these other cultures. He hires a teacher and begins to learn the local languages; eventually, of course, he begins to pass himself off as a foreigner -- not one of the detested English, but from a place that allows him to be treated almost like a countryman. Kashmir, for example. He begins trying to pass as not being British -- and is even so successful that he gets himself arrested by the British. In India he is still learning to pass for someone he is not, but he learns quickly -- and realises also that this is an ideal way of gathering information that the locals would not share with their British masters.
       The other half of the India-section is narrated by his servant, Naukaram, who (being illiterate) goes to a letter-writer and winds up setting down the story of his years in Burton's service, a work that gets completely out of hand (the scribe winds up paying him to finish his story ...). Naukaram's account doesn't run entirely parallel to that of Burton's stay, and is as much about his life and experiences in those times, with Burton as the dominant (and often mystifying, because so atypical) figure in it. Trojanow very effectively presents what is not so much a clash of cultures but the mutual attempts to feel the other cultures out. (Not surprisingly, for example, master and servant share the woman Naukaram procures for Burton.)
       Burton's teacher, the wise scholar Upanitsche, is also an appealing figure, the perfect foil for the incredibly eager and ambitious Burton. (He also introduces him -- ever so gingerly -- to the Kama Sutra.)
       If in India Burton is still an outsider looking in, just occasionally playing little more than dress-up, in the second section he entirely assumes the role of the Other. The section focusses on his pilgrimage to Mecca, disguised as Mirza Abdullah. He does not immediately plunge in, but rather acclimates to this society, living in Egypt, being helpful as a medicine-man, winning over trust and becoming more convincing in his role before setting out on the haj. Here the alternate perspective is that of the angry local officials after the fact, trying to determine how Burton fooled so many and accomplished his feat -- and how much of a spy he was, as (among other things) they interview many of the people he travelled with and encountered
       It's a very different society and experience from that in India -- and Burton does utilise his unique access to collect intelligence (and warns of the coming rise of the Wahhabi in the holy area -- cavalierly dismissed by those (still) in power there ...).
       The final section focusses on Bwana Burton's East Africa expedition with Speke, the race to discover the source of the Nile This section is more straightforward, though Speke makes for a useful contrasting British figure and explorer to Burton.
       Trojanow's novel excels in the local colour, the sense of the time and place and especially the tension in the air that's always present when there is a stranger in the midsts. Burton's efforts to understand and belong often are very successful, and yet he is also always simply an observer, and his fundamental foreignness can never be entirely overcome. Even those sections of the alternate perspectives where people speak of being completely convinced by his disguise are subverted by the authority-figures who point out the fraud. The extensive use of alternate local voices is also very successful in painting this picture of a time when forces from without were in a sense threatening (to varying degrees) what had remain long unchanged. The places Burton went, especially in Arabia and East Africa, were areas that had previously essentially never been visited by 'white' men.
       Surprisingly, it is the figure of Burton that is perhaps the least successful part of the novel. It is an impressive portrait, and perhaps for a German audience not as familiar with Burton as British or American audiences may be more than enough, but because it only focusses on parts of his life it feels like a good deal is missing. And Trojanow presents Burton as a mystery-man, as someone who remains unknowable to all those around him (the theme of people being baffled by his actions is a constant). Trojanow never really seems to try to get inside the man, and it's not clear that there's entirely enough of him here otherwise to go that route. The reader is constantly told how others see and perceive him, but Burton remains a cipher, an man trying on yet another disguise.
       Still, Der Weltensammler is an impressive book and an enjoyable read -- not a quick adventure book, but a carefully layered story immersing readers in these specific historic locales, built up around this fascinating man and many gripping episodes.

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The Collector of Worlds: Reviews: Richard Francis Burton: Ilija Trojanow: Other books by Ilija Trojanow under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Ilija Trojanow (Ilya Troyanov) was born in Bulgaria in 1965 but grew up and was educated in Kenya and Germany. He currently lives in South Africa, but writes in German.

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© 2006-2021 the complete review

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