Sunday, December 07, 2014

Book: A Fortune-Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani


A Fortune-Teller Told Me proved to be a highly challenging read. The book is written by the journalist Tiziano Terzani, who travels the Far East over land and by sea, after taking the prescient advice of a fortune teller to avoid travelling by air.

I'm not sure how valid this gripe is, given the title of the book, but I found the heavy emphasis on mysticism in this book almost overbearing. Terzani seeks fortune tellers at every possible point on his journey and while the tellers' efforts prove to be a very mixed affair, this didn't deter the man in his quest. There was endless advice against travel by different modes, fortune tellers provided protections against various evil spirits, and they churned out the usual spiel on wealth, health and relationships.

On the plus side, both Terzani and the places he visits are reminders of the superstitious world we still live in. And Terzani's land travels enabled him to experience the cultures and customs of the Far East, which are giving way to the capitalist creed and homogenisation that comes part and parcel with globalisation, so he says. Unfortunately, Terzani can't help but to keep hammering the negative points of modernity and capitalism, although he does it in style:

"Music now seems to be made for the ears, not the soul; painting is often an offence to the eyes; literature, even literature, is increasingly ruled by the laws of the market. Who reads poetry anymore? Its exalting power has been forgotten! And yet a poem can light a fire in the breast as strong as the fire of love. Better than whisky, better than Valium or Prozac, a poem can lift the spirit, because it raises the vantage point from which we see the world. If you feel lonely you can find more company by reading poetry  than by switching on the television."

"Sitting at the stern, I wondered how much longer such a world can last, based exclusively on the inhuman, immortal and philistine criteria of economics. ...I imagined a tribe of poets, held in reserve for a time when humanity, after this dark age of materialism, will begin once again to sustain its existence with other values."

"Somewhere there is a someone who is pushing to make the world turn faster and faster, and to make people more and more the same - in the name of something called 'globalisation', the meaning of which which few understand and still fewer have said they want. "

I too lament the homogenisation of cultures but I believe Terzani's views are overly one-sided, ill-informed and romanticised. It's almost like he can see the beauty only in some part of reality and the shutters are down on the rest. For example, I don't know anyone who seeks progress in the name of 'globalisation', but they do it to make better lives for themselves. Nevertheless, Terzani writes well and what kind of reader would I be if I could only read books that I was in full agreement with?

The last few chapters of the book were the most interesting and I'm glad I didn't abandon the book mid-way. In the penultimate chapter, Terzani spends time with a major drug lord (Khun Sa of the Golden Triangle). He even passes off the drug lord's birthday as his own when he goes to a fortune teller, and is given a strikingly accurate reading for the drug lord!

In the final chapter, Terzani has been struggling at a meditation retreat and finally has a breakthrough of the type that seems typical for many people trying their hand at meditation:

"My mind was no longer a monkey leaping from branch to branch. It was mine. This was a great pleasure. Then I heard John's words: ' Let it go ... Let it go. Attach yourself to nothing. Wish for nothing'. Even the joy of having tamed the mind, having conquered pain, was transitory - anicca - and I let it go."

And here's a bit on the lightness of being that comes with the Buddhist mindset:

"What I have always liked about Buddhism is its tolerance - the absence of sin, the absence of dead weight that we Westerners carry with us, the cement that holds our civilisation together: the sense of guilt. In Buddhist countries nothing is ever terribly reprehensible, no one ever accuses you of anything, no one ever preaches at you or tries to teach you a lesson. Hence these countries are very pleasant to be in, and many young Westerners, seeking freedom, feel at ease there."

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