In the footsteps of Sir Burton

Iliya Troyanov and his favourite subject have a few things in common. Like Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, the author has a love of travel that has led him in the former’s footsteps.

They share a passion for India and have both visited Mecca, though arguably under very different circumstances. In 2001, Iliya undertook a three month journey on foot through Tanzania, in the footsteps of Burton. Later, in an interview, he declared: “Travelling is the instrument, inspiration and theme of writing, because it touches the right manner of living, because, like literature, it is cathartic.”

Reportedly a master of 29 languages, Sir Burton has been described as explorer, translator, writer, soldier, orientalist, ethnologist, spy, linguist, poet, fencer and diplomat; in addition, he has been credited with bringing the Kama Sutra to publication in English.

Considering his extraordinary life, it’s no surprise that the charismatic Sir Burton’s travels provides enough material for not one but two of Iliya’s books - ‘The Collector of Worlds’ and ‘Nomad on Four Continents’. “Burton is famous in East Africa because of his expedition in search of the sources of the Nile, and I grew up in Kenya,” says the author, explaining that he first heard of Sir Burton there.

Though he has lived in Paris, Bombay and Vienna among many other places, Iliya (pronounced ‘e-lee-ya’) was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 1965. His family fled to West Germany in 1971 to escape persecution and he grew up speaking German before emigrating to Kenya. After an extended period in Paris, between 1984 and 1989 he studied law and ethnology in Munich. In 1989, he founded the Marino Publishing House, which specialised in African literature.

Despite his fond memories of the country, he says India may be his favourite so far, (“because of the diversity”), though Vienna where he currently resides “is a place with a lot of joie de vivre and the most beautiful architecture that I have ever seen.”

Having won several notable awards, including the Bertelsmann Literature Prize, Iliya is the author of nearly 20 books. He is currently hard at work, finishing a novel on climate change set in Antarctica, but will be in Sri Lanka in time to attend the Galle Literary Festival, 2011.

It won’t be his first trip here – just over a decade back he travelled around the country and wrote a long piece for one of Germany’s leading newspapers.

What are you reading right now?

The new novel by my favourite writer Antonio Lobo Antunes.

Any particular reason you are reading it?

I will have a public conversation with him next month at the Munich Literary Festival that I am curating.

Where do you like to read?

Everywhere, sometimes even when walking if the book I am reading is exciting enough.

Of the countries that Sir Richard Burton visited, which has produced your favourite literature?

Probably India. Discovering poets like Kabir and Lal Ded was a revelation to me, and the novelists of the last 50 years (Rushdie, Nagarkar, Anita Desai etc.) and of course the tremendous wealth to be found in the holy texts.

You’ve identified the Portuguese novelist Antonio Lobo Antunes as one of the greatest authors alive. What is it that sets him apart for you?

The originality of his language and his structure, polyphonic chorals that encompass the political and the private.

Which book do you think should be talked about more or be given more recognition?

Multitudes, but in general in the English-speaking world the non-English literature is sadly under-represented. There is great literature coming out of East Europe at the moment: Karahasan, Albhari, Dragoman, Cartarescu, Zhadan or Deresh.

What is the one book you wish everyone would read before they turned 30?

Why 30? Impossible to be profoundly affected after that? If so, I would choose “Don Quixote”, the sad and funny story of a holy fool and tramp misunderstood by everybody else

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