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By Edward Rice
522 pages; $35

MOST LIVES never live up to there movie versions.

But in Sir Richard Burton's case, "Mountains of the Moon," the recent film about his expeditions to discover the source of the Nile Riber, fails to capture the full measure of this remarkable character.

It's a good movie, but rendering Burton strains even the movie industry's myth-making abilities.

In this hefty new biography, Edward Rice doesn't puff up his subject or pander to the reader's desire for heroes. Rather, the book is almost plodding, with only am eager sense of wonder.

And that's just right. Let the facts of Burton's life burst off the page themselves. They don't need any embellishment.

Richard Burton, the British explorer, scholar and sexual adventurer (he's not the one who married Elizabeth Taylor) died in 1890.

He was the first white man to enter the forbidden city of Harar in Somaliland and one fo the first to see Mecca. He and his partner, John Hanning Speke, led the expedition that first reached the source of the Nile, though Burton doubted it at the time.

He was good with the pen and with the sword. He survived many battles during his travels through India, Arabia, Africa and South America -- including one where he got a spear thrust through his jaw -- yet he always found time to take copious notes. The result is a dizzying literary corpus of at least 49 books and translations.

Burton introduced the English-speaking world to the "Kama Sutra," the Indian sex manual, with his inventive translation. He apparently added the knowledge gained from his own experiences with Arab, African, Indian and Gypsy women to the original text and attached learned essays on the connection between culture, religion and sex.

His translation of the "Arabian Nights" made stories like "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" available to generations of children.

Of course, there was a dark side to Burton's role in all the countries he visited. He was a player in British colonialism -- the Great Game, as it was called. In his 20s, as an officer with the British East India Company, his job frequently was to go undercover in native dress -- a secret agent -- and gather intelligence about terrain and local power struggles, which the British presumably could use to subjugate the people.

And Burton shared some of the racism of his time. Rice quotes statements that show his contempt for many Africans.

But on balance, Burton's attitude seems astonishingly progressive for Victorian England. He was a bitter foe of the slave trade. In his writing, he criticized the insensitivity of British foreign policy. He spoke and wrote numerous languages fluently, and he immersed himself in the lifestyle and religion of most of the cultures he visited. He was an outcast among his fellow officers, shaving his head and wearing the flowing robes of Islamic holy men.

For Burton, this wasn't a put-on. He hungered for authentic experience.

When he was preparing for his journey to Mecca, he decided that for safety's sake he would have to travel disguised as a native Sunni Muslim. A white man would never survive the journey, and Burton had the looks to pass himself off as Arab.

He went so far as to wear the disguise and speak in broken English when he went to the British consulate to get the necessary papers. And thus he felt the other side of colonialism: The British officials insulted him and delayed handling his papers because he was a "native."

Through his life, Burton tested out different religions and cults the way artists experiment with styles. In India, he might have simply brushed up on basic Hinduism. Instead, Burton found an elite teacher and after an intense course of study, became an elite Brahmin and a fully practicing snake priest.

Burton finally settled on Islam and was a practicing Muslim for most of his later years, though after he died his family put out the story that he had converted to Catholicism in the end.

Rice duly notes Burton's penchant for having a woman around wherever he was -- sometimes for romance, usually just for sex in societies where women were raised to serve men. But his affairs ended for the most part after he married Isabel Arundell.

They met by chance on a street in Boulogne, France, where Burton was recuperating after an expedition and Arundell's family was vacationing from England. He was 30 and she was 19. Burton wrote in chalk on a wall, "May I speak to you?" And Arundell wrote, "No, Mother will be angry."

For 11 years mother was angry, because Burton wasn't Christian and wasn't rich. The couple wrote irregularly while Burton was off on his expeditions, including the three-year journey in search of the source of the Nile. They finally married, in spite of her parents, in 1861.

Burton traded in his exploring for the more settled married life of a British consul in a succession of places, like Damascus and Trieste. He took off occasionally on wild ventures to discover diamonds or gold. But those were never successful and the couple never had a lot of extra money. They decided against having children.

Burton kept writing, one thick book after another. In old age, he was more frequently drawn to translating erotic Eastern texts. On the day he died, he finished the last page of a long, ribald translation of "The Perfumed Garden."

Rice says many who saw the manuscript claimed it was brilliant, blending some of Burton's key themes -- exoticism, scholarship and sex. But his wife must have been shocked when she read it, because she burned it. Burton always was a little beyond the pale.