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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Book Review: A fortune Teller Once Told Me.

This is Tiziano Terzani's first book that I have read and I am thankful to a friend for lending me a copy, for I would have never picked it up by myself. The reading of this book has been a long drawn affair and like all other similar long drawn affairs, I am proud that I came through it. Although, my friend had warned me that it will take some work to get past the first forty pages and that it becomes better after that, I gave up on it much before that and moved my attention to the rest of my life, only to come back to it intermittently. For a long time, this book lied next to my commode and I would glance through it during occassional bouts of constipation. Eventually, after a year and a few months, I did finish it.

I will start by what I liked about this book. This book is a travel book, although judging by the way Terzani has written it, I am sure he would be turning in his grave at my choice of words. More on that later. Back to the travel bit, Terzani has captured the essence of Asia very well. Although, the book and his own feet take him to Mongolia, Russia and Europe as well but having never been there, I wouldnt know. I will have to concede that his descriptions make me want to go there. Coming to the South Asian part of the travel to which I could relate to fairly well, this is the first travel book I have come across that has described these countries, their societies and their way of life so well that by the end of it, you feel like you know them just like you know your own country. I could especially relate to the description of Malaysia, Singapore, and Cambodia fairly well. In all these countries, Terzani's itinerary touches the same destinations that I have been to, more or less. It feels surreal that someone felt exactly the same way about these places in the nineties that I did a decade later.

Second thing that I liked about the book was how it is punctuated with philosophical and spiritual monologues. The way Terzani has inked them on paper is just short of beautiful. The language is so good so as to be almost poetry. Add to that the profoundness of the utterings and you find yourself reading the same paragraphs again and again. However, at times, it feels like you are reading two separate books which have somehow gotten mixed owing to an irresponsible editor. Terzani could have done better to keep it a free flow of thoughts as opposed to a forced theory here and a labored analogy there.

Unfortunately, the above sums up what I liked about this book. There are couple of things that I didnt like about it. For starters, Terzani's constant whining about modernization as a curse and a step back is surely to get on your nerve. This comes from a man who grew up to poor working class parents and unshackled himself via the same opportunities afforded by modernization. In fact, he proudly compares himself favorably to his relatives and peers back in Italy. This is utter hypocrisy and as much as I tried, I couldnt escape the stereotyping mentality to brand him as another white skinned romanticist who wants the third world to stagnate so that he could visit them as a temporary respite and to add to his dinner time conversation or in this case, to write a bestseller. Every chapter of the book contains at least a para or two on the perils of modernization and I found it to be extremely one-sided view of things and in this particular case, almost to the point of unashamed blasphemy. Consider this:

"What an ugly invention is tourism! One of the most baleful of all industries! It has reduced the world to a vast playground, a Disneyland without borders. Soon thousands of these new invaders, soldiers of the empire of consumerism, will land, and with their insatiable cameras and camcorders they will scrape away the last of that natural magic which is still everywhere in this country."

This is coming from a person who confesses that he likes to travel and whose book is likely to be bought by travellers. But no, Terzani would have much preferred the old world where conquerers, instead of travellers, would invade these lands and instead of simply snapping their pictures, cover them with blood. There are numerous similar theological inconsistencies in the book. Once, he laments that modernization has caused Singaporeans to dress well but stay mum and then the very next page, he complains how garrulous his taxi driver was and how he longed for peace.

The list is endless and I wouldnt bore you with it any more except for one last racial derogation that absolutely killed me. He toys with the role of chinese emigrants in South-east Asia, how they have shaped the societies and economies. This is a very interesting and big enough topic to warrant a book of its own. But Terzani hovers at the surface and never really takes as much as just a dip and brands them as "Like all emigrants, these chinese had only one dream - money." He blames that these emigrants left behind their gods and their spiritualism for the unworthy cause of earning money and to have a better life. And who is Terzani, if not an emigrant? The book is filled with similar prejudiced comments about Mongolians, Russians and English (He has been universally prejudiced - you have to grant him that). If one day, I travel to these places, I would know if he was right.

If it were a work of fiction, I could have made exceptions but it is not and I feel compelled to be judgemental.

Second thing that I didnt like about the book is actually quite contextual and it may not apply to everyone. Terzani, in this book, has acted on a fortune teller's advice and has decided not to travel by air for an year. His reasoning is more to experience a different life. However, at times, he seems to glamorize his travel as if he is unique in doing this. Whether it is travelling by an overnight train or sailing in a cargo ship, he almost claims that he is a higher being and others do not know what they are missing. Such condescending attitude! An average Indonesian or a Vietnamese or a Cambodian probably would be far from impressed by his self-imposed 'discomfort'. About five years ago, even I was used to taking fifty five hours in train and on road to get home, without ever crossing borders. As such, this book limits its admirers to elite and 'successful' class of people (likely westerners) looking for adventure on print that they themselves would be too comfortable (on their sofas in front of TV) to ever undertake.

All-in-all, if you are planning to travel to South-east Asia, I would still recommend you to carry this as a bed-side reading. However, without the context, you would spoil a bad read.


Hiren Gajria said...

Neat review. However im not so much into reading books. Id would like to suggest a topic for our next blog. We being "Intellectuals" need to make our own theories of how what and y the financial markets are the way they are. It would be great to see if we can compare our theories. Is this of any interest?

Beta said...

Hiren - Your suggestion is of great interest to me but I want to keep my blog the way it is i.e. a hodgepodge of mostly irrelevant and trivial stuff.

However, if you do write a post on this topic, rest assured, I will comment and expound upon your theories.

Annoymously said...

Hi Dormitus, your blog was referred to me by a good pal whose work ethic & acumen I respect. He recommended it strongly and wanted me to get down on it right then & there :) and revert.

Thought I'd drop in a line to say that I did enjoy reading your latest two posts. Will not read the book now that you've pointed out various hypocritical inconsistencies by the author.

Will peruse through the rest of it when I can and hope you don't mind this unsolicited message.


Beta said...

Anonymous - The book has certain good aspects about it as I have mentioned. Although, if hypocrisy doesnt go down well with you, then you are better off avoiding it.

Comments are always welcome. They, especially such as yours, light up my day. Keep them coming.