I can't have been alone in shuddering, last autumn, when it turned out that the Renaissance seer Nostradamus had correctly prophesied the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York. The tower of the new city will tremble, wrote the ancient visionary, and as this new reading makes clear, he was referring with "uncanny precision" to the events of 11 September. I am astro-sceptic, but on this occasion the uncanny precision of the oracle made me shiver. All at once it came to me, with terrible certainty, that this was an unmistakable reference to Peter Schmeichel, the "towering" new goalkeeper for Manchester City, doomed to take a knock next season. Or was it? Nostradamus is a master of ambiguity; his lines vibrate with alternative meanings, all equally uncanny and precise. And then, glimmering through the shadows of time, I saw it. The original French was a giveaway: cite neuve - a clear allusion to Gary (New Town) Neville, the injured colossus of England's back four. By some miracle of divination, Nostradamus had foretold that Neville's World Cup dream would crumble into metatarsal dust.
Perhaps one should not mock. The Nostradamus industry has flourished in recent times: our modern scientific world seems to be growing more, not less, credulous. So this new interpretation of the apocalyptic visions will probably keep us glued to our horror-scopes for years. Luciano Sampietro filters, from the eagle-and-crocodile imagery in Nostradamus's verses and letters, an alarming list of coming attractions: a stock market crash, the Third World War and "turmoil in the Middle East". Anyone who feels that these are highly probable events, requiring no special gifts of prophecy, will be given pause by the prediction that some time soon, perhaps this year, the Pope will die. If this comes true - if a very old and very ill man really were to drop dead just like that out, of the blue - well, it truly would be uncanny.
Let's cut to the chase: Nostradamus wrote an impressive series of myth-making poems, full of clashes and duels, famines and floods, pestilences and plagues. It is nice medieval science fiction. But such modern interpretations, twisting every sinew to pin high-blown rhetoric to specific events, are ludicrous. This one is implausible, bogus, horribly written and entirely without humour. It might sell like hot cakes, but it reads like cold porridge.
Sampietro declines to see anything as equivocal, and nervously insists that his readings are indisputable. It is "obvious", he thinks, that monstre does not mean monster; there is "no doubt whatsoever" that the "Chancellor as huge as an ox" is a portrait of Helmut Kohl - the description "corresponds exactly". These are odd definitions of the words "obvious" and "exactly"; perhaps they are used in some ancient Rosicrucian sense, where they mean "just about possible" or "very roughly". But the possibility of rival interpretations seems always to elude him. He takes the doomed "city in the east" to be Trieste, but to me, it looks like a dead ringer for Colchester. And he takes the "solar city" to be Rome, because it sanctifies sun-day - cruelly ignoring the claims of Sunderland. He sees Mercurial as the stock market, missing the possibility that Nostradamus has, with uncanny precision, successfully foretold (mer cure = sea cure) the modern boom in thalassotherapy.
Sampietro himself has comic faith in this sort of contorted reasoning. One dazzling insight allows him to translate Espaigne (Spain) as Japan, on the grounds that it is an anagram of "Giapnese", which is almost an exact match. In another inspired leap, he has Nostradamus pinpointing (with uncanny precision) the collapse of the Berlin Wall. The line goes: "Before the conflict the great shall fall." Alert readers will notice that this contains no mention of any wall, but Sampietro sees beyond mere appearances: the wall's absence, he claims, is a "simple oversight"; it was clearly meant to be there, to complete the hendecasyllable. This is a cunning and scholarly argument, even though it omits the possibility that the missing word is "fool".
It is a studious anthology of cliches. "Most people prefer to take each day as it comes," he writes, "like an ostrich burying its head in the sand." Diana, Princess of Wales maintains a "rigid silence" in her "troubled marriage"; there is "galloping inflation" in pre-war Germany, and there is "the dawn of the new millennium". It all sounds roughly (or is that exactly?) like the ramblings of a Hollywood screenwriter having a fit.
"In December 2005," Sampietro writes, "through a treacherous and sudden attack by the Russian fleet, the west's naval forces in the Mediterranean will be annihilated and, at the same time, a missile, bearing a nuclear warhead, will strike the White House, killing the President of the United States." The citizens of Europe will, in a priceless phrase, be "massacred in masses". But even though they have been "annihilated", they will fight back, and the forces of Islam and Russia will themselves be "completely annihilated". Wow! Get me a meeting with Oliver Stone.
I'm sorry. I usually believe that anyone who has gone to the trouble of writing a book deserves to be taken seriously, at least for a minute. But this is the exception that proves the rule. I do not believe in burning books either, though in this case it would be a waste of good fire. But there is one genuine mystery. Is Sampietro serious? Does he actually believe this tosh? I scoured Nostradamus's verses for clues, and look: "Le Seducteur sera mis en la fosse" (the Seducer will be put in the pit). Sampietro sees this as predicting the end of Satan, but I could not help noticing those tell-tale initials: L S. What if Nostradamus, who knew that one day a man with these initials would write this twaddle, was trying to warn us in a sly joke? It's spooky, but sometimes we must cast aside our fear of the unknown.
There is more. Nostradamus loved anagrams, and Sampietro sees them as a sharp prophetic tool. Thus roy temporel, he feels, can be reassembled as roy en petrol, or oil baron (he doesn't explain how the "m" becomes an "n"; presumably it is "obvious"). This set me thinking. I hunkered down with my tide-charts and tea leaves, my lucky pebbles and medallions. And I can reveal - exclusively to NS readers - that Nostradamus had a cheeky sense of humour. Shuffle him around, and look: O turn, mad ass! Throw in his first name (Michel) and it is clear that the all-seeing eye is winking. Alchemist? R U mad, son? It surely wasn't beyond the great man to prefigure text-message abbreviations, was it?
Actually, the whole point of Nostradamus's doom-filled images is not that they are uncannily precise, but that they are extremely canny, and most imprecise. They read like a joke, and the laughs are all on the tin-eared saps who aren't getting it. And it is sad that Sampietro does not seem to be a football fan because, apart from the remarkable allusion to Gary Neville, there's a rock-solid tip for the World Cup. The Roman Sceptre, says the prophet, shall yield to the cock. It's as plain as day: as Sampietro might say, there is no doubt whatsoever what this means - France (mascot: a cockerel) to beat Italy in the final. Uncanny, or what?
Robert Winder writes monthly for the books pages