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A Fortune Teller Told Me (Tiziano Terzani, 2001)

Check Amazon.co.uk for this book.

ISBN 0-6096-0841-X


The premise of the book is this: The author meets a fortune-teller in Hong Kong who tells him not to fly – not even once – throughout the whole 1993; if he does so, he will place himself in grave danger. The twin themes, of earth-bound travel and new-age angst, pervade the entire enterprise, as here:

“Today almost everyone has many alternatives, and can aspire to anything whatsoever [sic!] – with the consequence that no one is any longer ‘predestined’ to anything. Perhaps this is why people are more and more disoriented and uncertain about the meaning of their lives. … And the meaning of mine? Like everyone else, I often wonder. Certainly one is not ‘born to be’ a journalist. ...

“The next morning Angela and Charles caught a plane, and were in Bangkok in two hours. I had ahead of me four hours by bus to Chiang Mai and then a whole night on a train. [sic!] Inconvenient. Complicated. But the idea of keeping to my plan still amused me. I remembered how as a boy, on my way to school, I tried not to step on the cracks between the paving stones. If I succeeded all the way I would do well in a test or write a good essay.” – pp. 62-63

On the back cover of A Fortune-Teller Told Me, the Literary Review clip promises “the progress of a modern, sceptical and emotional pilgrim” – hmm, a veritable voyage of discovery. Unfortunately, as you’ll have divined already, Terzani's scepticism is kept on a very short reign and the man himself is completely out of touch with the lives of the local southeast Asian people – who certainly can not aspire to anything whatsoever, and who would not be in the least bit fazed by a ‘whole’ night on the train. So the only thing he discovers is the usual muddle-headed collection of misguided good intentions that one normally associates with the university common room.

In addition to the occult theme, Terzani is constantly pushing a particular anti-progress bandwagon throughout the book. The following is typical:

“Science having been put on a pedestal, everything non-scientific seems ridiculous and contemptible. Thus we have discarded innumerable practices that could have been of service to us. In Orsigna, when someone cut himself with an axe or a scythe he went to Alighiero, who made the sign of the cross and muttered a secret formula which his father had taught him. He then ran his hand over the wound, and the bleeding stopped. … Now even in Orsigna everyone goes to the hospital, and those who know how to perform the ‘markings’ grow rarer and rarer.” – p. 116

Well, thank Christ for that! Another one:

“I, like the Malays, … gave the name of ‘ghosts’ to the frustrations of so many young people. They had eagerly abandoned their work in the fields to go in to the factories, but soon realised that in doing so they had not bettered their lives or made themselves any happier. Quite the contrary.” – p. 142

(Terzani rapidly becomes tiresome in this regard: there is at least one of these little soliloquies in every chapter.)

Dervla Murphy manages to harbour similar 'anti-progress' views without being nearly so obnoxious. For example:

'But I do deduce poverty when almost everybody in a village is obviously permanently underfed. I have to admit, most reluctantly, that the opening up of this area may be a good thing. If only that process didn't always involve the destruction of local traditions, the debasement of taste and the stimulation of greed. It is tragic that living standards in remote regions cannot be raised without drawing people into the polluted mainstream of our horrible consumer society.' – Where the Indus is Young, p. 58

What infuriates me about this kind of patronising western sentimentality is that the patronising western sentimentalist seems utterly oblivious to what is really going on: Yes, these people are leaving behind their traditional ways of life. In doing so they are leaving behind short lives of grinding poverty and high infant mortality in favour of longer, healthier, happier lives, which include a little leisure, and a good chance of seeing their kids actually grow up. The Asian diaspora doesn’t exist for nothing. We don’t need to guess how many of them share Terzani’s maudlin nostalgia for grubbing around in “traditional” rural squalor. There is nothing romantic about disease, back-breaking physical labour seven days a week, or watching your children die while they are still babies. Fatuous wankers like Terzani harping on about how rustic it all is do not make the situation any clearer. Not only are these sorts of people ignorant, they are ultimately selfish: They want Asians (or whoever) to live squalid, “traditional” lives – for their spectator enjoyment; so that, once in a while, they can leave their nice, clean, well-appointed apartment, to enjoy a vacation among the rustics. And to hell with anyone else. Urgh!

But, unbelievably, it gets worse:

“The ship continued its throbbing, confident course through the dark. As I gazed at the sky and inhaled great lungfuls of fresh night air, I felt as if I were filling myself with stars. If that monster we call depression, which is always there in the background, lying in ambush, had put in an appearance there, it would find no room to enter. Hurray for ships!

“Towards midnight we passed Singapore. From afar even that city, so perfect, so proud and so oppressive, was only a vague luminescence on the horizon.” – p. 219

So here is Terzani, lazing away on the deck of a ship being sailed, by others, through the islands of Indonesia. Could the average Indonesian afford this sort of a break from his daily grind? I think not. For all his ranting, Terzani lives the life of a westerner (“my annual trip to Europe,” p. 259) with a western income derived from that most western of activities – journalism. He is the ultimate hypocrite, condemning the very culture and social structures which provide him with the means to do so.

And:

“I adore these characters – braggarts and ham actors and even scoundrels, but basically warm-hearted.

“Evert Bintang was born in 1939 in north Celebes. He joined the anti-Communist youth and in 1957, with a group of extreme right-wing guerrillas, went into the jungle to fight against the left-wing regime of President Sukarno. … ‘[W]e didn’t let a single Communist escape. We caught them, we tied them up and threw them into the sea.’” – p. 212

“To me this world was beautiful – a world of cardboard boxes tied with string, bundles, embraces, pushing and shoving, problems solved between people and not between computers, with lots of superfluous words and gestures, but with more feelings, fewer laws, fewer rules; a world where a director-patriot-philosopher-murderer at a kiosk on the harbour front generously offers drinks to all his friends, to his assistants, to a woman who has missed her ship to Jakarta, and to me, a foreigner.” – p. 214

Whereas Terzani seems to find this ‘warm-hearted character’ charming, others among us might recognise him as a war criminal: a mean, two-bit, pathetic little war criminal perhaps, but nevertheless cut from the same cloth as Radovan Karadic, Pol Pot, or Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Terzani would have earned more praise from me if he’d shot the bastard on the spot, rather than taking tea and trivialising the man’s crimes.

So, clearly, I despise the man I think of as “Tizzy” – his ethic, his values, his hypocrisy and ignorant selfishness, whatever he has that fulfils the function of intellect – everything about him. Yet, for all that, I enjoyed the experience of reading the book. It is well written. And it certainly gave me a fine rev-up for my money! So I guess I have to say …

Recommendation:  Recommended.

Look and Feel:  My edition is the usual matt-finish paperback. Indexed. No photographs except for the cover and inside jacket.


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