by Paulo Coelho
This is a neat little story which leaves a lasting aftertaste in the mind. It is not just about suicide versus the value of living but looks at society’s arbitrary construct on the definition of madness. When Dr Igor, who runs a mental hospital, is asked, what is reality, he replies: “It’s whatever the majority deems it to be. It’s not necessarily the best or the most logical, but it’s the one that has become adapted to the desires of society as a whole.”
The main character is Veronika, a 24-year-old librarian in Ljubljana, Slovenia, of usually passive nature, who decides to say goodbye “to what people called Life” and takes an overdose of tablets. As she is slowly dying she is annoyed to read an article in a computer magazine which asks, “Where is Slovenia?” So, she decides to write a note to the magazine explaining that Slovenia is one of the five republics into which the former Yugoslavia has been divided.
This letter would be her ‘suicide note’, even though she cannot give the real reasons for her decision to die: that everything in her life was the same, sex was no great shakes, marriage a farce, and once youth had passed it would all be downhill; and that the world was all wrong and she was powerless to put it right.
However, after she takes the overdose Veronika gains consciousness to find that she has been temporarily saved. She wakes up in Villete, a famous and much-feared lunatic asylum where ‘genuine madmen’ mingle with those merely accused of madness or pretending to be mad. Word gets around that Veronika tried to kill herself because nobody knows where Slovenia is.
The doctor tells her that the tablets she took irreversibly damaged her heart and that she will die in five days. She decides to kill herself properly or escape to do it.
In the hospital we meet several characters. Zedka (who is a proud Serb, and, thus, the enemy) is in for depression. Though married with children she had become obsessed with a former lover, unsuccessfully sought him out, and was prepared to give up everything for him. She was convinced that he was also desperately looking for her. Veronika learns from Zedka that some patients pretend to be mad in order to do exactly what they want. Another patient, Mari, suffers from panic attacks and is almost cured. But when she receives divorce papers from her husband she lies and tells the doctor the attacks have returned.
Dr Igor is himself a little mad, believing that the cause of insanity is Vitriol, a poison which the body produces. He believes that if he can find an antidote his name will go down in history and people will finally know where Slovenia is. Veronika is to be his experiment. He tells Veronika’s mother not to feel guilty and quotes statistics showing that one in five individuals in Canada suffers some form of psychiatric disorder; that Indians don’t believe that “the son-turned-murderer is a victim of his parents’ upbringing”, and, “as we all know, the Japanese will commit suicide at the drop of a hat.”
The bizarre doctor asks Veronika’s mother, “How would you like it if your husband were gripped by a sudden, passionate impulse and decided he wanted to make love in the living room?”
Veronika’s mother thinks, “What is the man talking about? I came here to see my daughter.”
Soon Veronika realises that she needs to be careful in case life seems worth living after all and that would cause her countless pain – given that she will die soon. She also realises that other Veronikas exist inside her, Veronikas that she could love. She hates the way she had lived her life, never bothering to discover these hundreds of other Veronikas who were more interesting, mad, curious, braver and bolder than her. She gets the urge to spend her last two or three days alive behaving inappropriately and indeed becomes sexually outrageous in one incident.
She begins to feel hatred for her mother – a woman who gave her love and asked nothing in return and that filled her with more guilt, on top of the guilt she feels for having forced her unhappy parents to remain married just to please her. She hates her father as well, recalling how she had been secretly attracted to him. She sheds her rancour and goes to the piano.
“She turned to the moon and played a sonata in homage to it, knowing that the moon was listening and would feel proud, and that this would provoke the jealousy of the stars. Then she played music for the stars, for the garden, for the mountains that she could not see in the darkness, but which she knew were there.”
Eduard, a schizophrenic who could die of hunger because he has stopped eating, listens to her rapturously, and very late in the day they strike up a friendship. He believes that her appearance in the asylum is a signal to him to return to Belgrade. He had wanted to be a painter but his father had insisted he follow him into the diplomatic corp. Veronika makes him swear that he will paint her before she dies and he promises.
When she is told that has just twenty-four hours left to live she tells Dr Igor that she wants to leave, to go outside, to see Ljubljana castle, to feel the rain on her face. “I want to give myself to one man, to the city, to life and, finally, to death.”
Brazilian-born Paulo Coelho, author of ‘The Alchemist’ which sold over 20 million copies, is one of the most widely-read writers in the world today. He writes with great grace, simplicity and effect. One of the patients in Villete cries, “I don’t believe in you, God, but please, help me,” which in itself is a statement on the human condition.
As the book comes to its end Veronika and Eduard plan to take off from the asylum for the night of her life, but there are a couple of surprising twists and turns still to come…