A Fine Tour with an Unfortunate Guide
A Fortune-Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani
Three Rivers Press, New York, 1997
If you could travel across all of Asia, would you go? What if you had to be accompanied by a preachy, sanctimonious, and sometimes downright nonsensical guide? Still want to go?
That's the conundrum posed by Tiziano Terzani's A Fortune-Teller Told Me. Terzani's book begins from a fascinating premise. As a journalist based in Asia, he is warned in 1976 by a fortune teller that he should not fly in the year 1993. Grave danger, he is told, awaits. As the year of destiny approaches, Terzani weighs his options. He is, he assures us, a reasonable man, but still... there is something mesmerizing in the idea of destiny. Should he heed the warning? Or should he challenge fate head-on?
Ultimately, he decides that he will use the prophecy as a gateway to a new adventure: he resolves to travel across Asia, by train, by boat, by bus, by car, by any means still bound to the earth and the sea. What's more, he resolves that in each of his destinations, he will seek out the most widely-renowned soothsayers, and get a few more takes on his future.
This has all the makings of a classic travel memoir. And at first glance, Terzani has the right qualifications: he writes well, he is a keen observer, and he's very knowledgeable about Asian history and culture.
Unfortunately, Terzani isn't just going to take us along for the ride: he's a man with an agenda, and he makes sure we hear about it. Over, and over, and over...
Terzani's mission is to convince us what a terrible thing "progress" is, and how "modernity" is destroying us all. It's bad enough that his arguments are condescending and poorly reasoned. He makes it worse by throwing in a little hypocrisy as well. This is, after all, a travel book. And yet Terzani seems oblivious to his own role as he laments tourism: "What an ugly invention is tourism! One of the most baleful of all industries! It has reduced the world to a vast playground, a Disneyland without borders. Soon thousands of these new invaders, soldiers of the empire of consumerism, will land, and with their insatiable cameras and camcorders they will scrape away the last of that natural magic which is still everywhere in this country." Similarly, Terzani laments his arrival in Singapore, where the people were "all elegant and well dressed; but nobody spoke." He complains that the warmth and kindness of an earlier day had vanished. And yet on the very next page he is complaining because his "noisy and obtrusive" taxi driver tries to engage him in conversation. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, a sermon is underway. And it's a sermon fit for a Luddite: "Once upon a time, even in Singapore, schools taught children to think. Now they mainly teach them how to program."
Where does one begin to dissect the absurdity of that sentence? How exactly does Terzani know what he claims to know? How much time has he spent in schools in Singapore? How much time has he spent in any school in the last forty years? And does Terzani even know what programming is? Does he really think that it's possible to write a computer program without thinking?? Fine, the next time someone needs sift through 20,000 lines of legacy C code to track down the pointer arithmetic error that is causing system memory to be overwritten at irregular intervals, let them hire an idiot who doesn't know how to think.
It's funny how many inhabitants of the First World romanticize the poverty of the Third World. Terzani seems to equate economic progress of any kind with some sort of bland, mindless consumerism. Never mind that economic progress brings with it such niceities as lower infant mortality and longer life spans: it encourages people to want their own TVs, and somehow that is evil.
Every once in a while, you just wish V.S. Naipul were sitting beside Terzani to whack him upside the head and ask him what the hell he's thinking.
Terzani flirts with the idea of writing something more than a memoir, and he has a genuinely interesting topic in mind: the role of ethnic Chinese throughout Southeast Asia. But he never really pursues the idea in depth, and his superficial treatment of the issue is flawed to begin with: "Like all emigrants, these Chinese had only one dream: money." Such a statement isn't merely wrong: it's insulting. It's insulting to the Chinese, and it's insulting to emigrants everywhere. Is Terzani suggesting that no one emigrates because they want to worship their own god, or because they want to be free to read what they want, or say what they want, or to vote for their leaders? No one leaves their country because they want their children to have a good education? Terzani, born in Italy, living in India, is an emigrant. Did he go there for the money? It's another example of his sometimes exasperating hypocrisy. At times he misses the wider lessons of his own writing. Describing the Mongolian landscape, he asks, "What does this monotony do to the mind? People who live, reproduce, and die in this universe which is all the same, what can they dream of if not demons?" One should remind Terzani that it is not only the landscape that becomes monotonous: if your entire life consisted of bending over in a rice field day after day, would you think of the quiet countryside as an escape, or as a prison? Perhaps it is because he has already drawn his conclusions that Terzani learns nothing from two westerners who surrendered to the mysticism of the east... only to wind up, in Terzani's words, as "unhappy... deep down."
But still, though Terzani is often pedantic, sometimes hypocritical, and occasionally even annoying, he's taking us to parts unknown. That in itself is worth the price of admission.
A good eye for odd details helps redeem the book. In Bangkok, for example, Terzani relates the story of the "body snatchers." Many Thais believe that when a person dies violently his spirit cannot find peace, particularly if the body is mutilated. There are special rites which can be performed to put the spirit at rest, but if they must be performed quickly. If not, the spirit will become evil, wandering endlessly, creating havoc. Various Buddhist associations have representatives scattered throughout the city, monitoring police radios, ready to rush to the scene of crimes and accidents to perform the appropriate ceremonies so that the dead souls will be put to rest.
His knowledge of history serves him well also, and he tosses off a few amusing quips. ("The French, who well knew the peoples they ruled, used to say: 'The Vietnamese plant rice, the Khmer stand there and watch, and the Laotians listen to it growing.'")
More seriously, in Vietnam, Terzani describes a meeting with a former revolutionary: "A man who had been a mythical figure in the Vietcong told me that the tragedy was that they had won the war: losers are forced to adapt, to change and thus to improve; but winners think they have nothing to learn." At times like these, when he is observing and listening instead of just blindly passing judgment, Terzani is a delight to read.
In one of the book's best passages, Terzani reflects on dying: "If I have time for reflection at the end, I would like to be able to say, 'I have traveled.' And if I have a grave, I would like a stone with a hollow from which birds can drink, inscribed with my name, the two obligatory dates, and the word, 'Traveler.'"
With that single paragraph, Terzani expresses with perfect simplicity the heart of wanderers everywhere. Yes, Terzani gets on our nerves sometimes, but no matter: he's a man in the right place at the right time. And if he didn't take us on this trip, who else would?
A Fortune-Teller Told Me is published by Three Rivers Press.