Interview with Ilija Trojanow

"What Is the Other?"

The subject of Ilija Trojanow's acclaimed novel "The Collector of Worlds" is about real-life British adventurer Sir Richard Francis Burton, a polyglot colonial captain, who apparently converted to Islam to facilitate his entry into the inner circles of Muslims. Interview by Ulrike Sárkány

Ilija Trojanow (photo: &copy Andreas Hassiepe/
Well-versed in Urdu, Persian, Arabic and Hindi, Trojanow has been an avid reader of literature by the oriental writers and poets as well as their depiction in the colonial writings

​​Ilija Trojanow, you were born in Bulgaria, you were brought up in Kenya. You have been living in India and South Africa for the past seven, eight years. How come you are a German author?

Ilija Trojanow: I have always been writing poems in English, for the last 25 years. But when I decided to write my first novel it was a conscientious decision to stick with German, for practical reasons but also for reasons of a certain love relationship with German. I feel closer to German than I do to any other language. And I feel that if you compare language to a tool box that German offers you more tools than any other language. It is a language with enormous variety and enormous flexibility, which I think suits prose, suits novels perfectly.

If I was a poet I would have probably gone for English because I think in poetry English has other kind of privileges and strengths. The question of language is highly politicized. A language like Macedonian had to become a language of its own for reasons of statehood and political independence.

I think that language is probably the kind of instrument which is closest to the human beings and I think if you ask me what people really cared about besides material things, then probably language is the thing people feel closest to. And therefore, if you ask me what is a sense of home or what is a sense of identity, I would always link it to language as opposed to place or any political union.

Your novel "Der Weltensammler" (The Collector of Worlds) which has just been published in Germany, has already received a prestigious literary award. The novel is about an English historical figure. There must be a special story about how you came about this Sir Richard Francis Burton.

Trojanow: I do believe that especially the 19th century in England or in Great Britain has brought forth a number of extraordinary, independent-minded, eccentric, powerful, courageous ​​people, who were to a large extent supportive of the Empire, who were part of the system but at the same time, they had very much their own mind, and they had an individual concept of how to approach the world, what to look for, how to transport cultural and religious differences, and how to write about them.

When you look at the history of the world, there are not very many epochs where you have such an abundance of extraordinary individuals as you have in England in the 19th century. And one of the most extraordinary ones is Richard Burton.

I think if you look around Europe, the only person for example in Germany who could be compared with Richard Burton would be (Alexander von) Humboldt. First of all, Richard Burton had an encyclopaedic interest towards the world; there is hardly anything that did not interest him. And when something really interested him, he was quite pedantic in his thirst for knowledge. He really wanted to know everything.

When you look at his book "The Sword", there is such detailed information about Chinese and Japanese swords and how they are made, and the different uses, and the different rituals around it. Same thing if you read his terminal essay on "A Thousand and One Nights". And he was the first to complete a whole translation of "A Thousand and One Nights" in English. There is such knowledge about most elements of Arabic culture.

At the same time he was someone who was not in any way afraid of putting his whole existence on the line of risking everything in his search not only for information, but also in his efforts, I think livelong efforts, to keep changing. And I think this was the exciting thing about the Victorian Age, that people had a feeling, that change is not only possible, but it is inevitable and that change is linked to a positive outcome.

In today's world we have seen the destructive result of change and we have seen how languages disappear, how cultures disappear. We have become very sceptical. But when you look back at the 19th century,

Ilija Trojanow (photo: DW-TV)
Ilija Trojanow is a writer who regards himself as a "traveller between worlds"

​​there was this enormous believe that all this change would be for the better that civilization would rise to its heights and that technology would solve all human problems.

So basically what I am saying is that the era is very exciting and the human being Burton is very exciting. And - and this is the third element which was probably most influential on me writing the whole novel - is that we still struggle with the idea: what is the other?

Every day when I open the newspaper and I read reports from Iraq, Iran, India, China, wherever, there is this continuous struggle to define where do we stand when we are exposed to something we do not understand. How do we react? How do we fluctuate between clichés, prejudices and a serious effort to change our position through this very painful and very difficult struggle of understanding.

In many respects we have not progressed beyond the times of Richard Burton. Actually when you look at the way he would try to avoid the clichés of his time he is probably more adequate than many authors of our times.

I believe that you did have very much of an interest in finding out about this man. Have you read all his books? And which was the first book that you read by Richard Burton?

Trojanow: Richard Burton published about 50 books, and there a few that we know have been published but are very difficult to find. Not a single one of these books is truly successful as a book. And the reason is - as someone once wrote - that Richard Burton is an orchestra without conductor. He never ever acknowledged the economy of form, he was never disciplined in editing his own work.

So basically, it is an invitation to a reader or to an author like myself to walk through this endless labyrinth of knowledge and experience and to take elements which can then be forged into a novel. So in many ways it was a blissful state for a novelist.

But when you went on your own Hajj to Mecca from Bombay in 2003, did you have his book about his pilgrimage to Mecca in you luggage?

Trojanow: Actually I did. But I found out that I did not read it, because the pilgrimage was so exciting and inspiring for me personally, also from a spiritual point of view, that I did not do anything else. Basically I just lived as a pilgrim for five or six weeks. But I had read the book before, and I read it afterwards. And as with any other book, there are moments when you would want to kiss him and moments when you would want to beat him up. That's the kind of person he is. But that's why it is always worth reading him.

Interview: Ulrike Sárkány


Ilja Trojanow was born in the Bulgarian capital Sofia in 1965, but he grew up in Nairobi. In the nineties he studied in Munich, Germany, where he founded a publishing house for African literature. Then he moved to Bombay, already with the intention of writing a book about Sir Richard Francis Burton. Trojanow's novel "The Collector of Worlds" starts in India where Sir Richard Francis Burton was posted as an officer. In 2003 Trojanow himself went on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He subsequently moved to Cape Town, South Africa, where he is currently stationed.

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