Tiziano Terzani

Veteran foreign correspondent
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Tiziano Terzani wrote a huge body of journalism and a shelf of books, several of them best-sellers in Britain and elsewhere as well as in Italy, where for 30 years he was famous as a foreign correspondent, writing passionately about events in Asia. But his masterpiece was himself.

Tiziano Terzani, journalist and writer: born Florence 14 September 1938; married 1959 Angela Staude (one son, one daughter); died Orsigna, Italy 28 July 2004.

Tiziano Terzani wrote a huge body of journalism and a shelf of books, several of them best-sellers in Britain and elsewhere as well as in Italy, where for 30 years he was famous as a foreign correspondent, writing passionately about events in Asia. But his masterpiece was himself.

A tall and dignified Florentine whose distinguished bearing belied his humble background, he suddenly decided to become a journalist after taking a degree in law and pursuing a successful career with Olivetti. And he did it Terzani fashion, with great single-mindedness and certainty and resolution.

Setting his sights on the post of correspondent in Peking, he studied Chinese at Columbia University in New York from 1967 to 1969. Overlooked by the parochial journalistic world of Italy, he tramped the editorial offices of Europe's top newspapers, and at the German news weekly Der Spiegel he was successful: won over by his grand manner and resounding self-belief and perhaps encouraged in their decision by the cultural and linguistic background of his wife, Angela Staude, the Florence-born daughter of an Austrian painter, they made him Asia correspondent in 1971.

Terzani repaid their trust many times. Successively correspondent in Vietnam, Peking, Tokyo, Bangkok and New Delhi, he gave a lifetime of reporting to the Hamburg magazine, eventually becoming one of its directors. Yet no one could ever have mistaken Terzani for a company man. He was hugely fortunate in finding an employer who gave him as much rope as he wanted - and from the beginning he took every inch.

The challenge of reporting from Asia he saw as being that of melting into the crowd, shedding the skin of the privileged Western reporter with his air-conditioning and taxis and cocktails and seeing the world through the eyes of the people he was writing about. To do this he learned their languages, adopted their dress, prowled about alone in the places where they lived, and spent quantities of time soaking up the atmosphere - not for the sake of obtaining scoops, though these came his way, too, but to report truthfully.

In Vietnam, for example, covering the last years of the war, he declined to flee as the Vietcong closed in on Saigon, but stayed for months, unable to break cover and write a line but observing the revolution at first hand and with great sympathy. Two best-selling books emerged from the experience, a "Vietnam diary", Pelle di leopardo ("Skin of the Leopard", 1973), and Giai Phong! (1976), about the liberation of Saigon.

The sympathy he showed for the Vietcong was perhaps too great and too naïvely extended, as Terzani himself later acknowledged. On the left politically, he was not at heart a political animal, and was regarded with wariness and mistrust by leftist circles in Italy. His readiness to immerse himself in Asian societies was matched by a refusal to put himself in hock to his own.

China, where he attained his goal of Peking correspondent, was the same story, his initial Maoist enthusiasm slowly supplanted by disillusionment. But he and his family lived the experience, as pioneering Westerners in post-Cultural Revolution China, to the full: he and Angela put their young children, Folco and Saskia, through a local Chinese-only school, and for excursions they would put their bicycles on a train, travel to a far-flung destination then pedal off into the sunset. Terzani eventually earned the Chinese government's opprobrium and was expelled in 1984 for counter- revolutionary activities.

But China was not, as he had fondly imagined at Columbia while cramming his head with Chinese characters, to be his Shangri-la. That role turned out to be reserved for India, as he realised (without fully knowing why) soon after arriving in Asia. In 1978, he told me, newly appointed Spiegel's Peking correspondent, he flew his family to Delhi to celebrate his 40th birthday in Karim's restaurant, and stunned them by formally announcing that India - a country where he had yet to spend any time - was where he planned to finish his life.

Because, through all the deadline-driven exigencies of a correspondent's life, Terzani was quietly working on the ultimate project that was himself. The turning point came in the early 1990s when he once again put his wonderful employers' understanding to an unusual test. Twenty years before in Hong Kong a fortune-teller had warned him not to fly in 1993; and whimsically enough, despite professional obligations requiring him to dash at short notice hither and yon from his Bangkok base, Terzani decided that he would remain grounded. He travelled copiously, by car, bus, train and boat and on foot, but eschewed air travel - and sure enough a helicopter he would otherwise have boarded that year did crash. And everywhere he went he consulted the local fortune-tellers.

The correspondent's gaze, till this point always focused steadily on the societies which he was striving to fathom, now began to turn on himself. His life, his destiny became the new terrain for exploration. He went native in his own skin.

The enchanting book that resulted from this year of abstinence, Un indovino mi disse ( A Fortune-teller Told Me, 1997), was a huge success in Italy and elsewhere, a success that enabled him to quit his weekly correspondent duties, a couple of years after finally landing in New Delhi. But in a bitter irony the moment of liberation coincided almost exactly with his discovery in 1997 that he was suffering from stomach cancer and could die within a few months (a disaster none of his innumerable fortune-tellers had hinted at).

The manner in which Terzani confronted this new turn in his life gave the most complete and moving demonstration of his maturity. This was not the way that we, his friends and colleagues in Delhi, initially understood it, because, from being the most convivial, charming, charismatic of friends, Tiziano practically vanished from our midst overnight. It was like a bereavement: we felt hurt and baffled. But the knowledge that death was close had brought him a sudden sharpening of priorities; also, perhaps a dislike amounting to revulsion from the glad-handing, hail-fellow-well-met Tiziano that we all knew and loved (and laughed at a little).

Terzani had a new country to explore, the grimmest and strangest yet most compelling of them all, the country of his cancer and his now diseased and wasting body. With the same patience, clear sight and sensible judgement with which he had reported from Cambodia or Nepal, and in the same bell-like Italian prose, he wrote from the land of cancer. The result was his last book, Un altro giro di giostra ("Another Turn on the Carousel", 2004). On its publication in April it went to the top of the best-seller list in Italy, and has remained in the list ever since.

In the years he spent in researching that book, which took him deep into ancient Indian philosophy, and, in coming to terms with his disease and his mortality, his political ideas also attained a new clarity. When he went to Afghanistan to write about the 2001 war, the book that resulted, Lettere contra la guerra ( Letters Against the War, 2002), was a fierce indictment of all wars. Terzani the veteran war correspondent became a hero to a new Italian generation of pacifists and anti-globalists. So many of them poured into the secular service held in his memory in Florence last Friday (total attendance more than 800) that the organisers had to move to a larger venue.

"We Florentines," Terzani told me in April, "have the opposite of an inferiority complex." Florentines are in no doubt that they are products of the greatest civilisation that ever existed, he said - and so you either stay there for ever, unable to leave, or you clear out for good as soon as possible. Terzani chose the second path and when he finally came home he was a stranger to his city, dressed in soft white Indian cotton, with the long white beard of a sage and his hair in a pigtail - replete with exotic knowledge of all the cults and sects he had explored since the diagnosis of his cancer.

Yet he was not, as one might superficially have supposed, a hippy out of season, but a man who in the shifting seas of our times had truly found himself, though far from home; and who had in the process acquired the extraordinary courage with which he faced his death.

In September he is to be posthumously conferred with Il Fiorino d'Oro, the city of Florence's highest honour.

Peter Popham