A few years ago, the nineteenth-century adventurer, linguist, and polymath Captain Sir Richard Burton was the central character of a film dramatizing the search for the greatest prize in exploration: the source of the Nile. It wasn't a very good movie, as most reviewers were quick to point out, but the man with the New York Times went further, accusing the director of sending a valentine to himself. I thought that was unfair; it was based not on the dull film but on the egotistical interviews given by the director, in which he portrayed himself as an adventurous, Burton-sort of fellow.
The expression stayed in my mind. It perfectly describes what one does when one attempts to walk where Burton walked. This was a man who was in the first rank of Victorian explorers, was a pioneer of anthropology, fluent in twenty-five languages and competent in many others, was the first translator of the Kama Sutra and The Perfumed Garden-though his wife burned this after he died-and produced what is still the best translation of The Thousand and One Nights; he visited, in disguise, the holy cities of Islam: Mecca, Medinah, and al Harrah, forbidden on pain of death to infidels. He wrote fifty books and was a spy. These are only his more notable achievements.
Faced with the life and work of such a man, the wise person gets humble. The unwise delude themselves.
There is no way to account for Burton. Leonardo da Vinci was born that way. Burton has no peers; not me, not you, not Christopher Ondaatje.
In 1842, Burton arrived in Bombay to serve with the British East India Company. He remained seven years, exploring the Sindh, mostly in the modern state of Pakistan. Ostensibly he was a surveyor but no doubt he was also a spy. Regardless, he explored extensively, learned the languages of the area, investigated the customs, particularly the sexual ones. When he left India, Burton was on the verge of his greatest achievements. Ondaatje's opinion, probably correct, is that India made Burton what he would become. He assumed, therefore, that the clue to Burton's character could be found in the Sindh. Legions of other commentators had failed to uncover the clue and, if he wanted to "fill the gap" in his understanding of the man, Ondaatje would "have to do something that, to my knowledge, had never been done before: follow in his footsteps. It wouldn't be for a mile though. It would have to be for thousands of miles!"
With that as his plan, as set down in the Prologue, the only way this could have amounted to a worthwhile book, would have been if, by the Conclusion, Ondaatje had admitted his failure as well as his utter delusion. But no; he ends by affirming his "desire to climb new mountains and discover new worlds," as if he'd climbed some old ones and made some discoveries.
Here are two quotes from the text that show why Ondaatje's claim to follow in Burton's footsteps is absurd. The first is from a contemporary of Burton's who visited him in the Sindh. Walter Abraham wrote: "His domestic servants were a Portuguese with whom he spoke Portuguese and Goan.and African, a Persian, and a Scindi. They spoke their mother tongue to Sir Richard and it was a treat to hear Sir Richard talk. One would scarcely be able to distinguish the Englishman from a Persian, Arabian, or Scindian."
A man with the Department of Education in the Sindh, a Burton student, tells Ondaatje, "He recorded street life and the life of ordinary people. He obviously had no access to the aristocracy.or nawabs.or the nobility."
But those are precisely the only people to whom Ondaatje has access, and, furthermore, he speaks only English. He does have a translator, Haroon Siddiqi, who speaks a couple more. But together they interview such as will speak with them.
Burton was in the Sindh seven years; Ondaatje three or four months. Burton donned various disguises to mingle in the streets, set up as a shopkeeper, visited the brothels, lost himself in the foreign cultures. Ondaatje, in addition to his translator, has a guide, chauffeurs, and, occasionally, an armed body guard. He stays at the Wellington Club, the Royal Bombay Yacht Club, and the homes of various nawabs. This is hardly losing oneself in a foreign culture, hardly walking in Burton's footsteps. Somehow the author fails to detect the irony of his position. His book possesses, therefore, not a little bit of unintentional humour and even some bumbling charm, as we watch a self-deluded, wealthy gentleman earnestly pursuing his obsession in an alien world that's going to stay that way.
But Ondaatje seems like a decent sort and his heart is in the right place. He takes good photographs, too. You have to like him despite his self-deception and his mania for using "really": "The constant hacking really was getting me down.I didn't really go back to bed after that.It really is odd that Burton didn't write much about Mysore.It really is quite cruel." There are many other examples.
He may be likeable but that is not enough reason to take a peek at his valentine to himself. Some things, to save embarrassment, should remain personal.
Jim Christy's most recent book is Strange Sites: Uncommon Homes and Gardens of the Pacific Northwest (Harbour). He lives near Gibsons, B.C.