December 03, 2006

REVIEW: A Fortune-Teller Told Me

In 1976, Tiziano Terzani, the legendary Italian journalist, decided to call upon a fortune-teller in Hong Kong, partly out of fun and partly out of curiosity. To his surprise, the oracle offered him a stark warning: 'Beware! You run a grave risk of dying in 1993. You mustn't fly that year. Don't fly, not even once.'

As the years progressed, the warning played upon his mind, and so he decided to hatch a plan that would lead to a fascinating adventure.

When 1993 finally arrived, he made the professionally inadvisable choice to avoid aircraft for the entire year, and chose to travel solely by land and sea. The result of this abstinence is his wonderful book, A Fortune-Teller Told Me.

Starting in Bangkok, where he was based as a Far-East correspondent for Der Spiegel magazine, Terzani sets off on a journey that takes him to Burma, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Mongolia and Russia. It soon becomes apparent that the slower pace of land and sea travel, provides him with opportunities that would have otherwise been missed, if he had flown. Amazingly, he still manages to fulfil all his professional commitments.

During his adventure, he encounters a wide array of engaging characters. In keeping with the catalyst for this journey, he decides to take various diversions that lead him into the often strange world of fortune-tellers, shaman and sorcerers, in a quest to discover whether there is any truth behind their claims.

A Fortune-Teller Told Me is so much more than a travelogue. It is a work of incredible depth and scope, that demonstrates Terzani's mastery as a journalist. For any traveller to the regions mentioned in the book, it is a welcome companion that informs greatly about the peoples, politics and cultures that reside there.

Terzani clearly laments the modernisation of his beloved Asia, and it seems that this book is also a work of passion to record aspects of Asian culture that are rapidly disappearing in the throes of change.

Indeed, he could be criticised for being overly protective and idealistic towards Asia's past. However, he is aware that Asia has no choice but to change, and his solemnity is more for himself than for the Asians: He is so clearly trying to retain the qualities that endeared him to the continent in the first place.

This book is as much a personal journey, as it is a record of a changing world. As he observed, 'I was marked for death, and instead I was reborn.'

Terzani tells a wonderful story that is enriched by his prose and romantic sensibilities, as well as his journalistic awareness for details and facts. This is as good as travel writing gets, and should be in the backpack of all new and old travellers to Asia alike. Peppered with insights, wisdom and a tangible love for Asia and her people, A Fortune-Teller Told Me is a testament of great journalism.

Sadly, Tiziano Terzani died after a long battle with cancer, at the age of 65, in 2004.

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