This novel is about three episodes in the life of that fascinating 19th century character, Sir Richard Burton (1821 to 1890), soldier, amateur anthropologist and explorer.
The first, which takes up about half the book, covers his life as a soldier in India (1842 to 1859). Thoroughly bored by the routine and by the narrow vision of his fellow officers, he first began learning several of India's native languages, and then took pride in his ability to disguise himself as an Indian so as to be able to mingle with them and get closer to understanding their way of life. Initially, when he was stationed in Baroda, he studied the Hindus; but when he was moved to Muslim Sindh, he became particularly fascinated by Islam. The conqueror of Sindh, General Napier, got Burton to use his skills to gather intelligence for him; but Burton thought the General's wish to impose British values on the natives wrong and counter-productive. This made him unreliable in the opinion of the army and would block any promotion. He left India and the Army.
The second part covers his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1853, disguised as Sheikh Abdullah and having made himself so perfectly familiar with the theory and practice of Islam that nobody penetrated his disguise; and the Muslim world was duly shocked when on his return he published an account of this experience. This part of the story gives a vivid account of such a pilgrimage - the dangers of attacks by plunderers, the fulfilment when the goal has been finally reached, but also the sickness and death that was the fate of so many exhausted pilgrims.
The third part covers Burton's expedition of 1857, together with his colleague and rival, John Hanning Speke, to find the source of the Nile. Again the many ordeals of the expedition are well described: the terrible terrain, frightful diseases, tribute to be paid to the chief of every village through which they passed, encounters with brutal Arab slavers.
The narrative alternates, in part 1 with comments of his Hindu servant; in part 2, rather tediously, with the attempts of Ottoman officials to find out, after Burton had published his account of his journey to Mecca, what his purpose might have been: they suspect it was gathering information for Britain's imperialist purposes; and in part 3, with an African guide who recounts to his friends his memories of the expedition, and who is the most interesting of the three. This device enables Troyanov to show Burton as he might have been seen by others, but I found it somewhat distracting, especially as you have to read some of the dialogue between several characters more than once to make sure who is speaking.
Altogether, I was a little disappointed by this book. Burton's personality did not come out as vividly as I think it might have done; the prose is sometimes striking, but at others it goes, I think, a little over the top (the book has been translated from the German by William Hobson); and the three episodes represent only a fraction (though a large one) of Burton's life. After a decent interval, I may return to him again, this time through a proper biography like Fawn Brodie's The Devil Drives.