Picks and Pans Review: Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton

updated 09/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/17/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Edward Rice

At last, a book about Richard Burton that doesn't mention Elizabeth Taylor! Actually this is about the original, 19th-century Richard Burton, the one who did everything except La Liz.

Burton spied for the British Empire, visited the holy cities of Medina and Mecca disguised as a Muslim, soldiered in the Crimean War, traveled the Wild West, explored the Amazon and the Nile, spoke 29 languages and many dialects, and wrote some 70 books, including the first English translation of the Kama Sutra and a 17-volume translation of the Arabian Nights.

Burton was a famous swordsman (in both senses—he believed that new languages were best learned in bed) and a compulsive chronicler. Born a Protestant, he became a Muslim, and along the way he dabbled in half a dozen religions and cults. In short, Burton's life was one big ripping boy's story. Rice, whose books include biographies of Thomas Merton and Margaret Meade, tells the story of that life well and as completely as possible.

There are gaps in Burton's résumé. Of necessity, his role as a spy was secret, and after he died 100 years ago, his widow. Isabel, burned any of his writings that offended her (many did). Burton himself practiced taqiya, a Muslim belief in concealment of religious ideas.

Son of a wandering father, Burton was born in 1821. He lived with his family in a series of cities in Italy and France. Expelled from Oxford, he did the accepted thing for his time, gaining a commission in the Honourable East India Company's army. He would never settle down until the last 18 years of his life, as British consul in Trieste, Italy.

Burton's fascinations—with religion, with language and with sex—took him to places that weren't even on the map then. His infiltration of Mecca was surpassed by his visit to Harar, the ancient walled city in East Africa whose citizens believed their city would prosper so long as no European entered its gates. Burton got in, took notes and escaped with his head. (As prophesied, Harar soon fell to its enemies.) Indeed, Burton's life was a series of escapes—from unfriendly locals, from an anthology of diseases picked up in the hellholes of the world, and from his host of powerful enemies in England, including John Hanning Speke. with whom he searched for the source of the Nile (a search depicted in the film Mountains of the Moon). Through it all, though, there was Isabel, who waited 11 years to marry him and who then began accompanying him on his travels.

What's especially stunning about Burton's story is that it happened a mere century ago. Many places he hacked his way into at peril of his life now routinely show up on the evening news, as dangerous as ever but no longer remote. We live in a smaller world, peopled by smaller men. (Scribners, $35)

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