Book Review: A Fortune-Teller Told Me

I’ve got to confess: I’m an absolute sucker for horoscopes – but let’s get this straight, when I say ‘horoscope’, we aren’t talking about some column in a daily tabloid. If I’m going to be duped by an astrologer, then they’ve got to do it right. I need a little mystery, some smoothly delivered sophistry, and, above all, a detached yet personable “seer”. I’m not proud of it, but at least the veneer of pseudoscience is sufficient to satisfy those otherwise rational parts of the brain, which would otherwise reject this nonsense outright. In short then, I am susceptible to superstition; and, when it comes to superstition, no one does it quite like the South-East Asians. This inner weakness, combined with the prospect of fine travel writing, was sufficient to peak my interest in A Fortune-Teller Told Me.

Tiziano Terzani’s Earthbound Travels in the Far East: A fortune-Teller Told Me is based upon a slightly unusual premise: following a warning by a Hong Kong fortune-teller not to fly for a whole year, Tiziano begins a quest to do just that. This might seem strange to some, but if you will go see Hong Kong fortune-tellers, you may as well take heed. However, there is a complication, Tiziano isn’t just a run-of-the-mill expat, with more interest in Singapore Slings and pretentious headwear than foreign travel, rather he is one of Italy’s most celebrated journalists and foreign affairs correspondents. This sets the scene for an epic journey across Asia, as Tiziano covers the various unfolding events of the region throughout the year. The quest is set and the results engrossing, but through all of this there is a continued interest in the supernatural. Tiziano seeks out fortune-tellers across the continent, always keen to explore their art and gain further knowledge of this dominant aspect of Asian culture. Though, while he is curious, at no point does Tiziano adopt an attitude of blithe acceptance of these pronouncements, rather he attempts to rationalise and to comprehend the oddities he encounters.

It must be said that in his journeys Tiziano travels further towards acceptance of these supernatural occurrences than most Westerners would permit; but this is perhaps the least important aspect of the work. It is consistently entertaining, continues to question both Western and Asian assumptions, and marries together a broad array of encounters and experiences from across Asia. All of this makes A Fortune-Teller Told Me an unashamedly different and intriguing piece of work.

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