Few journalists become legends in their own lifetime and even fewer deserve to. Tiziano
Terzani, who died last week at the age of 65, certainly deserved it. In his native
Italy he was more than a legend - he became something of a guru, a pilgrim for improvement,
probably the most celebrated Italian traveller of his time. He was a brilliant, passionate
writer and his death has inspired long eulogies in the Italian press.
A writer, journalist and traveller for the past 30 years, his books include Goodnight
Mister Lenin, a journey around the Soviet empire as communism collapsed. In A Fortune
Teller Told Me, he recounted his earthbound travels by car, bus, bicycle and foot
in 1993 - he never took to the air that year because he had been warned by a fortune-teller
way back in 1976 that in 1993 he would die in a plane crash.
The book turned into a glorious journey through Asia and through his own consciousness,
examining slower, gentler and more traditional Asian philosophies and ways of life.
He was in Cambodia in the summer of 1993 when a UN helicopter filled with journalists
crashed, seriously injuring some of them. Terzani was not on board - because of the
prediction. More recently, after he knew how serious his cancer was, he became more
passionately polemical, more suspicious of all power, and more anti-American. He
wrote a short book arguing fiercely against Western intervention in both Afghanistan
and Iraq. Letters Against the War was a bestseller in Italy.
At the civil ceremony marking his death in Florence last week many hundreds of his
readers came to pay tribute to this extraordinary and delightful man. A few days
before his death, to which he journeyed with impeccable dignity and courage, he was
told he had been awarded the freedom of the city, his own.
Terzani was born into a working-class family in Florence in 1938. His school soon
spotted his exceptional talent and his education took him through the prestigious
Scuola Normale in Pisa; Leeds University, where he studied international relations;
and then Columbia University, where, as a Harkness scholar, he learnt Chinese, the
fifth language in which he became fluent.
A short stint with Olivetti convinced him that he was not cut out for the business
world, and his young wife Angela, the daughter of a German painter living in Florence,
persuaded him to become a writer. Securing and keeping the love of Angela, he said,
was his greatest triumph. Seeking a great job in Asia, he deployed his magnificent
self-confident charm on the editors of Der Spiegel; the German executives were overwhelmed
and dispatched this unknown young Italian to Singapore as Spiegel's principal Asian
correspondent. In the decades to come, he lived in and covered Vietnam, Cambodia,
Thailand, China, Japan and India. He wrote for Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica
in Italy as well, and he wrote his books - but Spiegel was his principal, generous
employer. The fame he created for himself reflected well on them.
Terzani had the air of a showman, though never a poseur. He had class. He almost
always dressed immaculately in white - slacks and shirt in Asia, even in the warzones
of Vietnam, and well-cut white suits in the West. He was tall and elegant and, until
his treatment for cancer, slim. He was not greedy but he loved to live stylishly.
His house in the centre of Bangkok was a rare oasis, with trees and a pond with a
turtle. In Hong Kong he lived on the Peak in an old English block of flats. He always
knew that he was dashing and attractive and he loved it. His eloquence was extraordinary,
his passion contagious; a day in his company was always exciting and rewarding.
In 1975 he stayed behind in Saigon when it fell and wrote his book Giai Phong! about
the communist victory. He would say of the men from the jungle: "They are different
from us" - so much harder and more resolute. Broadly a man of the Left, he had
been optimistic about communist victory; in the event he was shocked by the cruelty
that communism brought to Vietnam and appalled by the holocaust committed by the
Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
Later sojourns in both China and Japan left him critical of both societies. He was
expelled from China for his writings, and his book Behind the Forbidden Door documented
his disillusion. At the same time, he was despairing of the West and of capitalism's
unbridled ability to change and in his view destroy societies, reducing all to a
homogenized global mass.
Terzani was certainly not always right - he knew that himself. But his eloquence,
charm and wry humor disarmed critics. His life was a continual romantic search (always
disappointed) for perfection; in his later years, perhaps he came closest to finding
his own ideal existence in Gandhi's teachings and in Indian mysticism.
When his cancer was diagnosed in 1997 he went (of course) to the best oncologists
for treatment, at Sloan-Kettering in New York. It was incurable, and he decided to
use whatever time was left to him to map and make his last journey - to death. He
spent much of the last few years living very simply, without running water or electric
light in a hut in the Himalayas, where Angela would visit him. There, he said, he
learnt how to die. Earlier this year his last book, Un Altro Giro di Giostra (Another
turn of the merry-go-round), which dealt with his reaction to cancer, was a bestseller
In the last months he came back to the family home in the hills outside Florence,
where he created his own Himalayan fastness. A sign on the gate said:
"Every visitor is unwanted. No exceptions." He meditated and talked to
Angela, his son Folco and his daughter Saskia, who all survive him. "I am very
well," he said. "It is just my body that is rotting and I am going to leave
Tiziano Terzani, journalist, was born on September 14, 1938. He died of cancer on
July 28, 2004, aged 65.