Assignment of a lifetime

When Italy's famed foreign correspondent Tiziano Terzani was told he had cancer, he set out on his most remarkable journey yet. Now his life-and-death dispatches have become a best-seller
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The Independent Online

Go into any Italian bookshop this month, and the new work by Tiziano Terzani is hard to miss. It's a fat tome, nearly 600 pages, and there are stacks of them everywhere. Published in early April, it shot up the Italian non-fiction best-seller list within days, despite little publicity.

Go into any Italian bookshop this month, and the new work by Tiziano Terzani is hard to miss. It's a fat tome, nearly 600 pages, and there are stacks of them everywhere. Published in early April, it shot up the Italian non-fiction best-seller list within days, despite little publicity.

The allure is not immediately obvious. Un altro giro di giostra is the title - "another turn on the carousel". On the cover the aged author, with a bulbous nose and dense white beard, peers balefully out from a black background as if at some naughty boy whose football has smashed his window.

Tiziano Terzani has been a powerful presence on the Italian literary scene for decades. For 30 years, he was practically the only Italian journalist writing passionately and in depth about the great events in Asia, beginning with the Vietnam War and moving on to Cambodia, China, Japan, Afghanistan and India. As a correspondent for the German weekly Der Spiegel, he covered a vast region of the world that even the serious Italian newspapers ignored. He recycled his German dispatches into a series of books, beginning with gripping accounts of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon that brought those events and exotic countries to Italians with arresting immediacy.

In the field, Terzani was an unmistakable figure: a tall, dashing, elegant Florentine with a booming voice, fluency in five or six languages, including Mandarin, and a charisma to which few were immune. Some foreign correspondents make a habit of having themselves photographed with the famous people they interview. Terzani's collection has some such snaps, but more representative are the pictures of Terzani himself, alone, impeccable in native dress, moustaches bristling, brimming with vigour, against a shifting Asian panorama.

So who is this melancholy figure peering from the cover of his latest book, which is proving (like its predecessors) such a hit with Italian readers? What has become of his bounce, his self-confident gleam, the sense of a lucky man playing an excellent hand of cards with all his wits?

What's happened, in a word, is cancer. In 1997, after a series of nagging health problems, he learnt that he had cancer of the stomach, which required immediate treatment - chemotherapy, radiotherapy, perhaps surgery - if it was not going to kill him within months. On the advice of a friend who had survived a similar disaster, he flew to New York and put himself in the hands of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), one of the most advanced cancer hospitals in the world. He was 59.

Un altro giro di giostra is Terzani's account of that experience - how it changed him; how he became (as he puts it) a member of "another tribe", the tribe of the sick; but also how cancer sent him in new directions, to open doors he never knew existed or never thought to try.

In his previous book, A Fortune-teller Told Me (1995), he wrote: "Life is full of opportunities. The problem is to recognise them when they present themselves, and that isn't always easy. Mine, for instance, had all the marks of a curse..." Cancer - extraordinarily enough, one may think - struck him the same way. "It seemed to me," he writes in the new book, "that the cancer was another good opportunity. I had often said jokingly that my dream was to shut up my journalist's shop, pull down the shutter and hang up a sign saying, 'Out for lunch'. It was as if the cancer was what I had been looking for."

Today, seven years after first checking into MSKCC, Terzani is alive and kicking, his big book is in the shops, and the worst prognostications are confounded. But his book is no simple account of the will triumphing over adversity. Rather it is, like most of his books, the story of a journey, "a voyage," as the subtitle puts it, "among the evil and the good of our time".

The "good opportunity" of which he wrote in his earlier book was a warning given him by a fortune-teller in Hong Kong in 1976 that in 1993 he should avoid travelling by air. He did not forget the warning, and when 1993 rolled around he decided to act on it, eschewing aeroplanes and crossing Asia for his work by car, train, bus and boat, and on foot. The warning became the frame of the book, which was a huge best-seller in Italy and did well in Britain and the United States.

But that was a game compared to what Terzani confronted now. The fortune-teller's words could have been laughed off: most people would have forgotten them long before the critical year arrived. But there was no laughing off this new "opportunity". And he confronted it with all due gravity.

The cancer, he felt, "was born... from the type of life I had lived previously". So to cure it, "I would have to break with the past and start my life over completely afresh, confronting different problems, thinking different thoughts. I myself must become different, and not merely physically."

Terzani submitted himself, readily and promptly, to the most sophisticated Western cancer treatment available. He is eloquent on the allure of alternative cures for people frightened of going under the knife. "How many people," he writes, "thinking to avoid the mutilation of surgery... put their trust in solutions apparently easier and more promising?... When the woman decides to go back to surgery, it is already too late. She has lost precious time. She dies."

Yet, even while enduring the tortures of chemotherapy - the loss of the senses of taste, smell and touch, loss of hair, loss of concentration, the dulling of brain power - he remains stubbornly sceptical about Western medicine. "In other words," he quotes his doctor, who was preparing to dose him with chemotherapy, "it's like bombarding a jungle with napalm and destroying thousands of trees, trying to kill a monkey perched up a palm..." And, he observes: "All the language surrounding this illness is the language of war. The cancer is an 'enemy' to be 'beaten'. The 'evil' is always seen as something extraneous that has come from outside to cause trouble and that therefore must be destroyed, eliminated, routed out."

But within weeks of starting the treatment, Terzani finds that "this vision did not please me, no longer satisfied me". While continuing to submit to his doctor's "napalm", he began, he says, "to make friends" with his cancer, "if for no other reason than because in one mode or another... he was going to keep me company for the rest of my journey."

In his previous book, Terzani had with whimsical diligence heeded the fortune-teller's warning, sticking close to the earth for a year and taking the opportunity to seek out other fortune-tellers at every stop. This time round, making friends with the cancer, his now inseparable companion, he conceived the idea of "setting off to find the other types of medicine, of cures and miracles, that might serve in my case". Thus began the new journey.

After a long round of meditation, fasting, prayer, reiki, ayurveda, amulets and yet more meditation, all of which takes him halfway round Asia, he finds himself five years later back at MSKCC in New York. A new, unpleasant, gum-chewing doctor tells him that he must immediately submit to chemotherapy once again.

"'With what advantage?' I asked.

'Possibly six months more of life,' he said.


'Otherwise you won't make it... If you are still around in one year, you will go down in medical history.'"

But this time Terzani declined to go back under the napalm. Instead, he headed straight for the hermit's hut in the Indian Himalayas that he had rented to put himself as far as possible from civilisation and its discontents, and wrote this book. Sixteen months later, having duly taken his place in medical history, he is still with us.

Tiziano Terzani at home in Florence is reminiscent of one of those 18th-century English nabobs, returned after a lucrative spell with the East India Company laden with the treasures of the East. The home is fabulous, a house high on the hills above Florence, in a district justly named Bel Sguardo (beautiful view). A cherry tree is in bloom outside the front door. The home he shares with his wife and frequent travelling companion, Angela, is full of the spoils of their journeys: an antique Chinese four-poster bed, chests and carpets, gleaming bronze buddhas, thousands of books. Tiziano himself, whom I first met in Japan 20 years ago, is all in white, the rough cotton clothes of India he's worn for years. His grey hair, abundant again, is pulled back in a ponytail.

With such an idyllic spot as home, what, I wonder, had impelled him to spend most of his adult life grubbing around Asia? "If you are from Florence," he says, "you are born with the contrary of a chip on the shoulder. You are born with the sense that the whole world outside is known, that you possess wisdom, knowledge, that everything man can ever achieve has already been achieved and you have it in your DNA. Which is a beautiful attitude - but for me, I felt I was in a prison, I felt I was born in a museum, and either I play the role of a custodian or I have to run away. Which has been the meaning of my life."

Having run away, he chose to blend in. In Vietnam he crossed to the Vietcong side. "For the first time I did what I have done ever since: I crossed the line." It was the only way, he said, that he could "describe this war - because even if you go into a war not identifying with one side, you end up immediately identifying with that side when the other side starts shooting at you".

He became, he said, "a chameleon". "In China, I dressed like a Chinese, I moved like a Chinese, by bicycle... When we travelled with the family, for instance, we would put the bicycles on a train, we would go to a faraway place, miles and miles, one night and a day of travelling - then we would take the bicycles and go around."

He was an enthusiast for revolution. But the failure of the ones he witnessed, and his new friend cancer, changed his mind. "I had always great sympathies for revolution. I was in favour of the Vietnamese revolution, the Chinese revolution - all revolutions interest me. And now," - in a hoarse whisper - "I realise; all the external revolutions have changed nothing, have only created more violence, more death, more tears. So there is only one last possible revolution, the spiritual one, that each person has to learn by himself, but probably, all together, can change the fate of mankind."

It's another of the insights for which he thanks his illness. "Cancer is an epidemic today because of the way we live, what we eat, because of industry... Cancer is the epidemic of our time. Terrorism is the disease of our society. Interesting. Both phenomena are treated in the same way. Nobody goes after the causes of cancer. Nobody goes after the causes of terrorism. Everybody goes after a cure. So for cancer, every factory, every pharmaceutical industry, is looking for the cure for cancer. So we are looking for the cure for terrorism. Why? Because that way we produce new products. Industry is happy to produce new products, new medicines which they sell you at a high price, and terrorism can produce new surveillance systems, new weapons, new atomic mini things."

But now - not as a sort of game, as in his previous book, but in earnest, to redeem what could be redeemed - he has turned his back on all that. After a lifetime of agnosticism he has found religion, though exactly which religion it would be hard to say.

"Again, I'm a chameleon. I have not become a Hinduist, I have not become an ashramite, and the swami to whom I owe a lot, I have not become a follower of his. He might be disappointed by that. Because I am a chameleon."

But he has retained something?

"Oh, a lot. I really saw the world from another point of view. I rediscovered the power of prayer."

And established religion, he says, is never enough. "Religions give you answer pills. Religions are wonderful lifts: if you have to climb 30 floors in a skyscraper, my argument is you'd better take the lift. That is what religions are; you get inside and they go - zwooooooosh! - and they bring you up.

"But if you really have to go on the roof, you have to still go up the little staircase to the top, and you can only do it by yourself."