The fabulously romantic life of Burton has been told in many a novel and many a film—from all of which Iliya Troyanov’s intelligent, vastly entertaining novel differs in crucial respects. Readers may recall the viscerally exciting biographical film Mountains of the Moon (1990) that followed the dangerous voyage in search of the Nile’s source and the bitter quarrels over priority in discovering that source at the Geographical Society of London. What viewers of that movie will not recall are any significantly developed characters from the indigenous peoples (what the Victorians called the natives) among whom the explorers traveled. There were a few servants whose dedication issued in sacrifice; and a few bloodthirsty attackers who executed the servants and wounded the whites—but none of these received serious treatment. Troyanov retells the story from the alternating vantage points of the white principals, above all Burton himself, and the non-English-speaking peoples through whose territories Burton voyages, whose languages he learns with incredible facility. As he seeks to understand them, they quizzically seek to fathom his motives and beliefs. The drama arises not so much from scenery and danger as from the exciting, often droll volleying of blindness and insight between the Englishman and the Asians and Africans whom he at once fascinates and bewilders.
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