Travel memoir A Fortune Teller Told Me: Earthbound Travels in the Far East , sees Italian journalist Tiziano Terzani roam mostly across the Southeast Asia of the early 1990s, introducing us to some intriguing characters and fascinating anecdotes. Published in 1995, the book shows a snapshot of Asia back then, a meandering and enjoyable read for those particularly interested in the region.
Told by a fortune teller in 1976 that he should avoid flying in the year 1993, Terzani eventually decides to only travel by land or water that year. Luckily, he has understanding editors at Der Spiegel and he’s able to take the extra time required to catch trains, buses and boats to various corners of his beat in Asia. He decides along the way to hunt down local fortune tellers, chiromancers, seers, astrologers and shamans to see what they have to tell him about his future. (Interestingly, the correspondent who replaces him for a trip to Cambodia in 1993 survives a helicopter crash.)
Well reviewed since publication in 1995—“arguably the finest account of Asian society since Norman Lewis,” writes one enamoured reader—we enjoyed his portrayal of the countries he covered, but his writing is very much in the tired vein of “you should have been here yesterday”. “I find it tragic to see this continent so gaily committing suicide”, he writes. “But nobody talks about it, nobody protests—least of all the Asians.”
His stance is that societies here are being ruined by modernity and a hankering for wealth; the trappings of the West have devastated ancient societies and it’s all very homogenized now. His obsession with moving to India, a place where he feels there’s a chance he’ll still find an unadulterated and authentic culture where tradition is respected, feels naive. His refusal to countenance that the people living in the countries he visits may have some agency in their decisions, at least today, comes across as somewhat patronising. Terzano blames an obsession with the pursuit of money—driven by the venal Chinese—for ruining much of the region, but doesn’t seem to acknowledge or perhaps consider how it was really colonialism itself that created the structures that then allowed development to continue along the trajectory of which he so strongly disapproves.
Even today, while it’s certainly true that much has been “ruined” by overtourism and other kinds of development, anywhere in the world, culture runs deep and can’t be obliterated as easily as skyscrapers can be erected. Yes, some traditions may have been lost in a practical sense, but if you scratch the surface in any country in Southeast Asia—even Singapore, which Terzano has next to no time for—there is a richness on many levels below that still exists and waits to be explored and teased out, even for the traveller in 2018. (He writes that Singapore “is the Bethlehem of the great new religion: the religion of consumerism, of material comforts and mass tourism. There is no need for cathedrals or mosques. The new temples are the hotels. By now it is the same almost everywhere in Asia. There are no more beautiful palaces or pagodas to grace the urban panorama: only hotels.” Which we don’t think is quite true.)
Terzano’s coverage is whimsical and eclectic—he follows his nose and stories as any journalist does—and this also means it’s somewhat uneven in terms of what history he decides to share with readers. The history of Malacca, for instance, is delved into in great detail, but other destinations get a much more cursory description; on the other hand, we can’t think of any other book that covers Thailand’s obscure Betong in such detail. While intrepid on the travel front, it feels a little lazy on the research front; of course, it’s memoir, so naturally a collection of anecdotes from the people Terzano meets, like drivers, hotel owners, architects, translators and politicians appear, but it’s not in any way rigorous.
Terzani describes plenty of somewhat interesting fortune tellers or seers or shamans along the way, even if somewhat superficially; their predictions are often surprisingly uninteresting. Even he writes that, “My visits to fortune-tellers were growing more and more disappointing. What they told me about my fate was a string of banalities. Were there really any among them with special powers?”
He covers a lot of ground in a year, and often only has an hour or two with the people about whom he writes, extracting their stories to produce their potted life histories. While that may have worked for a book published in 1995, today’s readers might demand the complete stories of those very fortune tellers or seers or shamans in their own voices, or at least the voice of someone who has spent years in a country rather than a few weeks.
There are odd little errors throughout, too. In Thai, it’s very definitely “mai pen rai” not “mai ping rai” and the famed Australian cameraman he refers to is Neil Davis, not Neal Davis. The grand pronouncements feel old fashioned: “Taking time for oneself is a simple cure for the ills of the soul, but one which people apparently find difficult to allow for themselves.”
Nevertheless, something alluring remains about the idea of travel without planes. Terzano writes that his experiment led him to “rediscover the majority of humanity whose very existence we well-nigh forget by dint of flying: the humanity that moves about burdened with bundles and children while the world of the aeroplane passes in every sense over their heads.” And it’s true, that you’ll find out much more if you abandon airports and head for the crowded buses, trains and boats of Southeast Asia; for here, even in 2018, there are still many fascinating stories and histories to be found.
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