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The Short Century of Tiziano Terzani

Who was Terzani? A war correspondent? A polyglot explorer? A restless traveler? He was a collector of books, no doubt; but above all he was, as he loved to call himself, an “escape artist”.

Anni Novanta © Archivio Terzani

Àlen Loreti (1978) edited the two volumes of the complete works by Tiziano Terzani in the prestigious Meridiani collection in 2011. In 2014 he published Terzani’s authorized biography (Tiziano Terzani: la...

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Anyone who comes to San Giorgio Maggiore early in the morning relives the feeling captured by Joseph Mallord William Turner in 1819 in his portrait of the island’s silhouette in the delicate light of daybreak in Venice. Atop the Basilica’s Palladian cupola the statue of San Giorgio, mutilated by a lightning strike, has received a new right arm, and now proudly stands ready to fulfill his new task: to watch over the archive and more than 5000 volumes on East Asia in the library of Tiziano Terzani, recently donated by his family to the Fondazione Giorgio Cini.

Terzani, who died in July 2004, is the rare case of a best-selling author (three million copies sold in Italy) who has become an integral part of the social fabric. In the ten years since his death, libraries, schools, a major literary prize – awarded to Jonathan Randal, Anna Politovskaya, and Ala al-Aswani, among others – and even a hospital in Afghanistan have been named after him. But who was Terzani? A war correspondent? A polyglot explorer? A restless traveler? He was a collector of books, of that there is no doubt; but above all he was, as he loved to call himself, an “escape artist”. A collector of escapes: from an overprotective mother, fearful of the tuberculosis that decimated her family line; from classical Florence, dominated by its bourgeois middle-class; from a white collar desk job, so prized in the years of Italy’s economic boom; and from a certain idea of Europe, inspired by the Treaty of Rome but divided by the Cold War.

But who was Terzani? A war correspondent? A polyglot explorer? A restless traveler? He was a collector of books, of that there is no doubt; but above all he was, as he loved to call himself, an “escape artist”

Born in 1938 on the banks of the Arno, the only child of a mechanic and a seamstress, Terzani became a journalist at sixteen, reporting on sporting events for the daily Giornale del Mattino. After graduating with high marks, he turned down an offer of a job at a bank and continued his studies at the Collegio Sant’Anna, an affiliate of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, the prestigious academy for the nation’s elite. Having completed a rigorous course of study and graduated with honors in Jurisprudence, Terzani was hired in 1962 by Olivetti, the Italian multinational that was then revolutionizing the market for calculators and typewriters with its technology and design. Entrusted by the Ivrea-based company with the job of finding “eggheads” for its foreign offices, Terzani began to travel – from Japan to Australia, South Africa to Hong Kong. His professional mobility exposed him to the beauty of the wider world, and he soon realized that a managerial career was not for him; selling a Lettera 22 typewriter did not give him as much pleasure as using it to compose articles for the magazines and journals for which he was already writing. This was the turning point: he left his job and returned to university under a Harkness Fellowship – suggested to him by Gorley Putt, whom he had met at Johns Hopkins’ campus in Bologna – which in 1967 opened the doors for him to Columbia University in New York. He immersed himself for two years in the cultural ferment of American society – the student pacifist movement against the war in Vietnam, the African-American civil rights struggle, the fervent anti-communism of Uncle Sam – and soon decided to study history and Chinese language, which he refined at Stanford University. Fascinated by Mao’s theory of cultural revolution, which had sparked international debate, and by the exciting lives of Edgar Snow and William Hinton (whom he met in Pennsylvania), Terzani dreamed of seeing the results of socialism with his own eyes. He returned to Italy, where he was hired by Giorno in Milan, but after passing the professional journalists’ certification exam he discovered that no one needed a correspondent in Asia. He resigned his post and, using his severance pay, traveled to all the major European papers until finally in Hamburg the editor of Der Spiegel, Rudolf Augstein, was so intrigued by this embodiment of the “brain drain” (cervello in fuga) who could speak four languages, that he offered him a contract.

Anni Novanta © Archivio Terzani

In 1972, Terzani left for Singapore with his wife and two small children, establishing a home base for his nomadic adventures in the Far East. He courageously covered the war in Vietnam, which he recounted in his first literary effort, Pelle di leopardo (The Leopard’s Skin) in 1973 and Giai Phong! in 1976. The latter work, his eyewitness account of the liberation of Saigon and the American retreat, was later successfully translated (under the title Giai Phong! The Fall and Liberation of Saigon). Joseph B. Treaster, a correspondent for The New York Times, wrote of it, and Kevin Buckley – from 1968 to 1972 the bureau chief for Newsweek in Saigon – admitted that “it is difficult to put a label on Tiziano Terzani. Giai Phong! is the vivid, intensely provocative account of Vietnam and the Vietnamese people during an extraordinary period in their history,” surpassing The Last Day by John Pilger. Terzani, meanwhile, moved to Hong Kong, where he got a peek at the moves made by the new leadership of a Chinese communist party agitated by the death of Mao Zedong. Finally, in 1980, he realized a lifelong dream and set up shop in Beijing. Though carefully watched by the regime of Deng Xiaoping, he traveled throughout the country and discovered an impoverished, hungry China whose ancient civilization had been swept away. In his reporting he tried to unmask the hypocrisies of Maoism, but the Chinese authorities demonstrated themselves to be less than tolerant. “Who is this Italian who dresses like a Chinese, who learned Chinese in the United States and writes for the West Germans?” The trap was sprung in 1984. Terzani was arrested for “crimes against the revolution” and expelled from the country forever. It came as a shock: “Perhaps Napoleon was right”, he later wrote in Behind the Forbidden Door (La porta proibita). “When China wakes up, the world will shake. The West underestimates China, which is why it pretends to believe its little scenes. But it mustn’t be underestimated”.

“If I have had one role in my life it has been that of raising questions. Asking the right questions sometimes implies establishing the bases for the answers we seek”

He undertook a new challenge in 1985 and moved to Tokyo. There, however, he found an alienated, consumerist society that foreshadowed the rhythms and formulas of globalization. He fell into a deep depression, which resolved in part when he moved in 1990 to Bangkok. But History held another surprise for him in 1991, when he heard news of the coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev while at the Amur river, on the border between the Soviet Union and China. He decided to head to Moscow through Central Asia, a two month long trip during which he witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet empire. “No Asiatic culture is capable of resisting the asphalting of Western materialism. Perhaps only Islam. It is a growing force. In Tajikistan I saw the fall of the first statue of Lenin; it came down to cries of ‘Allah Akbar!’” He documented such primal forms of nationalism and religious fanaticism in advance in Goodnight, Mister Lenin (Buonanotte, signor Lenin) in 1992 – “a splendid book,” in the words of the Polish journalist and author Ryszard Kapuściński.

All of Terzani’s works were written in “a time of transition” – the end of empires, the end of ideologies, the end of the nineteenth century, the end of a career – periods that could never be repeated. This was the driving force behind 1995’s Un indovino mi disse (A Fortune-Teller Told Me), his most popular and widely-translated book, the story of a year spent traveling without airplanes out of respect for the prophetic warnings of a fortune-teller, in which he describes a rural Asia overrun by globalization. In Delhi in 1996, tired of writing, he decided to retire, but in 1997 he discovered that he had a tumor. This was his shadow line, which he confronted as though it were a scoop in Un altro giro di giostra (Another Spin on the Merry-Go-Round), published in 2004. If for Baudelaire the true travelers are those who “never swerve from their destinies, saying continuously, without knowing why: ‘Let us go on!’,” for Terzani that “why” was writing, exposing himself to the foreign, and searching for truth. The same impulses he documented in Lettere contro la guerra (Letters Against the War) in 2002, when, disturbed by the events of 11 September 2001, upset by the invective of writers like Oriana Fallaci, and indignant at the media for supporting military conflict, he went to Pakistan and Afghanistan to report “the motives of those on the other side” in support of diplomatic dialogue and the movement for peace. “If I have had one role in my life it has been that of raising questions. Asking the right questions sometimes implies establishing the bases for the answers we seek, on life, on how the world works”, he said.

One year later, upon his death, Kapuściński was asked to make a comparison with Herodotus, whom he used in one of his books, “a visionary of the world capable of thinking on a global scale, perhaps the first globalist in history.” To the journalist’s question – “what about reporters today?” – Kapuściński replied: “I could name many. But I would prefer to cite the name of one who is no longer with us, Tiziano Terzani. He knew how to traverse both countries and people’s souls”.

Tiziano Terzani’s books abroad

Like their author, the books of Tiziano Terzani have traveled the world, and they continue to do so, making him one of the best-represented authors around the world. His most translated book to day is the posthumous La fine è il mio inizio (The End is My Beginning), from 2006, which has crossed the borders into China, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Poland, Greece, South Korea, Spain, Hungary, and Hong Kong. Un altro giro di giostra, published in 2004, can now be read in Catalan, French, German, Greek, Polish, Slovenian, and Turkish. Lettere contro la guerra (2002) has appeared in the Arab-speaking countries, in India, Slovenia, and the Spanish-speaking world, as well as France, Germany, and Poland – the three countries most in thrall to Terzani’s work. Translations of In Asia (1998) have appeared in Germany and Poland, while Un indovino mi disse (1996) has reached Brazil, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Poland, Portugal, Thailand, and the United States.

30 October 2014

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