Reads – A Fortune-Teller Told Me

A Fortune-Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani

Fortune-tellers and travelling. Not much can go wrong with that combination, can it?

I was sold on A Fortune-Teller Told Me in roughly half a second, convinced by the title alone. Sometimes you just know.

It tells the story of Tiziano Terzani – an Italian journalist based in Asia for Der Spiegel throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s – and how he spent 1993 travelling Asia and Europe without stepping foot on a plane, having been warned against air travel in that year by a fortune-teller in Hong Kong sixteen years before.

‘It was an excellent decision, and 1993 turned out to be one of the most extraordinary years I have ever spent: I was marked for death, and instead I was reborn.’

This is such a wonderful and surprising book. Terzani’s understanding of the political (and cultural) histories, systems, and workings of countries in the far east of Asia were unrivalled – and if stories of the political/cultural workings in 1990s Asia don’t sound particularly interesting (it’s what I would have thought, too), then think again. They’re fascinating. The information and technologies he describes might be outdated, but the stories behind them are compelling and important, and they still shape the geo-politics of today.

Terzani himself is a compelling character throughout the book. He had plenty of frank opinions which he wasn’t afraid to share, especially regarding the thoughtless consumption and reckless materialism he saw engulfing every corner of the world. At times, I rolled my eyes; at others, I found myself never wanting to step inside a shop again (which is slightly inconvenient, seeing as I work in one). And his ability to spot and tell a story were incredible – pretty enviable, too. The book comes to life in all the tiny details he could so easily have ignored but didn’t. One of my favourite stories is barely two lines long, from page twenty-seven: ‘…during the war every time the Pathet Lao crossed a river, the last man in the patrol had to turn back and call to a non-existent comrade. The Spirit of the River habitually carries off the last in the line, and in that way the guerillas hoped to deceive it.’ The whole book is teeming with anecdotes like these, and I loved them all. My copy is full of dog-eared pages and pencil scribbles in the margins.

‘Every place is a goldmine. You have only to give yourself time, sit in a teahouse watching passers-by, stand in a corner of the market, go for a haircut. You pick up a thread – a word, a meeting, a friend of a friend of someone you have just met – and soon the most insipid, most insignificant place becomes a mirror of the world, a window on life, a theatre of humanity.’

A Fortune-Teller Told Me is an extraordinary blend of the magical, the momentous, and the mundane. On every page, the world is changing. On every page, the world is weird and wide and wonderful. It might be from 1993, but this is a book that still has a lot in common with the world of today.

And I wonder what Terzani would make of it?