The Italian journalist and writer Tiziano Terzani, who has died aged 65, once said that his gravestone should be inscribed only with his name and the word “traveller”. His approach to the final destination has certainly been followed in Italy with an attention rarely accorded to journalists, however distinguished. Last spring, his book on the cancer that killed him was a bestseller, and it is a mark of how unique a figure he had become that his death was marked by pages of tributes in La Repubblica and Corriere della Sera, and by extensive coverage on television and radio.
Terzani earned his wisdom, and passed it on to his readers in Italy, Germany and many other countries, through nearly four decades of intrepid exploration, brilliant description, occasional celebration and increasingly despairing criticism of the direction in which the world, and especially the Asia he loved, was heading. He reported on his own foibles, prejudices and crises, and, in his coverage of Asia, he also reported, by constant inference, on the west as well as the east.
Indeed, the penetration of Asian societies by western materialist values was, for Terzani, the story that spanned and defined his career. The Chinese readiness to sacrifice everything for economic ends, the Japanese mania for growth, the betrayal of the promises of the Vietnamese revolution, the Indian drive to acquire nuclear weapons and the Islamic world’s dangerous flirtation with jihad were all aspects of the same deterioration.
Of working-class background, Terzani had the Florentine sense that his city’s cultural splendour was both something to be cherished and, in its modern existence as a museum state, something from which a free spirit had, at all costs, to escape. His Florentine roots had much to do with his profound distaste for tourism – “one of the most despicable, destructive industries on the face of the earth” – and his equally profound enthusiasm for travel.
He escaped first to read law at the prestigious Scuola Normale in Pisa, then went on to Leeds University to perfect his English and study international law. Recruited by Olivetti in the mid-1960s, he soon found himself unsuited to corporate life, and attracted to journalism.
During his travels abroad for Olivetti, Terzani began to work for L’Astrolabia, a socialist weekly edited by a former president of the republic. He filed for the magazine from South Africa and, after he left Olivetti, from the United States, where he had taken up a Harkness fellowship to study Chinese at Columbia University, New York, from 1967 to 1969.
He then returned to Italy to work at Il Giorno di Milano. But, anxious to get to Asia, he knocked on the doors of many other publications across Europe, including the Guardian. In 1971, the German news magazine Der Spiegel took him on, agreeing to sustain him in Singapore, from which base he covered the last years of the Vietnam war. He went on to report from Hong Kong, Beijing, Tokyo, Bangkok and Delhi.
As a young reporter, with his upright bearing, dark hair and moustache, dressed in white slacks and shirt, Terzani had sometimes the air of an off-duty cavalry officer on his way to play tennis. In his later years, he grew an impressive beard and wore a long white Indian kurta. He was a man of style, fastidious about clothes, antiques, music, houses and the view from the window. But, if there was discrimination in such things, there was never any greed or excess, for that would be the opposite of living well.
His self-confidence and drive were forces to be reckoned with. Even when he set out, in his embrace of Asian meditative traditions, to subdue his own ego, he did so in a characteristically large way. He had an equally great capacity for warmth and affirmation, and friends rarely came away from an encounter with Terzani and his wife Angela without feeling the better for it.
Terzani’s life as a journalist comprised his German existence with Der Spiegel, and his Italian existence as a reporter for Corriere della Sera and La Repubblica and an author. At a time when Italian journalists were thin on the ground in the wider world, Italy had, thanks to Der Spiegel, a correspondent and writer of the first rank on the great Asian crises.
Der Spiegel became used to both the gifts and the eccentricities of Herr Doktor Terzani, and there were tensions from time to time. But when Terzani proposed to spend a year covering the news without travelling by air, choosing, in a deliberately contrarian way, to pay heed to a warning by a soothsayer, Hamburg did not baulk. The result was A Fortune Teller Told Me (1995), an account of journalism in the slow lane and an examination of alternative values and beliefs. It was a huge success in Italy, and elsewhere in translation.
As Terzani later explained, “If you run a big magazine like that, you can afford a fool because maybe he’ll deliver something different.”
When Terzani first went to Asia, he was already a man disillusioned with the capitalist west, and for a time he saw the antidote in Asian communism. He was one of those rare reporters to stay on after the liberation of Saigon, and in his book Giai Phong! (1976) he painted a picture of its transformation from a corrupt, brothel-studded town into what seemed like an orderly and industrious city, and wrote approvingly of re-education. But he soon understood that communism had no answers, whether in Vietnam, Cambodia or China.
He charted China’s inadequacies, and its betrayal of its cultural heritage, in Behind The Forbidden Door (1985), and his critical reporting led to his expulsion from the country in 1993. He found Japanese society no more to his liking during his sojourn in Tokyo.
Drawn to Asian religions and meditative traditions by his need for a counter to western “craziness” and its Asian imitators, Terzania also found in them a source of personal guidance after he was diagnosed with cancer in 1997. But it was typical of him that he sought out both the best oncologists, at the Sloan-Kettering Centre in New York, and the best conditions for meditation, in the Himalayas – and that he should wryly observe, at one point, that he was in the Himalayas because of Sloan-Kettering, and not in the Sloan-Kettering because of the Himalayas.
He told friends his later life had brought him two gifts, cancer and a good pension, by which he seemed to mean both an acceptance of mortality and the money, and time to explore that acceptance. He summoned reserves of energy to campaign with vigour and passion against western intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq. His Letters Against The War (2002) underlined the dangers of the confrontation which the US was, in his view, stupidly and cruelly insistent on deepening.
When illness finally began to restrict his horizons, he approached his end with an equanimity, and a care for his family, that were superbly of a piece with the way he had lived his whole life. In 1956, he had married Angela Staude, the daughter of a German painter who had settled in Florence. It was a union of love, intellectual companionship and intense mutual support. She, and their two children, Fulco and Saskia, survive him.
· Tiziano Terzani, journalist, born September 14 1938; died July 28 2004
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