Every now and again I come across a book that I enjoy enough to read repeatedly. I have several of these on our bookshelves at home. The Harry Potter Series is an annual read for me in my YA set. The Kushiel’s Legacy series is another, in my Not YA set. There are, though, few books that I have encountered that I have read and enjoyed at different periods of my life when that have meant different things to me. Particularly because I have gone through some dramatic life shifts, and because those shifts have given me some fairly fundamental changes in how I view the world, politics, religion, human nature, and mostly myself as well.
One of those books, which has had a great impact on me and which I have enjoyed in immensely different ways at hugely different periods of my life, partly because of the way the author’s experiences are painted into the word work and partly because of the story itself, is Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die. Veronkia was recommended to me by a friend who has in the past recommended other books that I have always enjoyed for one reason or another (including The Hitchhiker’s Guide and I, Lucifer, and who also gifted us with a set of 4.0 books for our wedding — you will either fully appreciate that or you won’t), and for me and the way I chew novels for breakfast was a quick read. It took me the better part of a morning. That friend knew that I sometimes practice what is commonly referred to as astral travel, and what I sometimes more commonly lump in with lucid dreaming (they feel the same to me) and thought that I might find the scenes about this topic interesting. I did. In an odd and slightly disturbing way.
In fact, that is how I would describe my first foray into Veronika. Odd and slightly disturbing.
So: Spoilers Ahoy and also a Trigger Warning for descriptions of attempted suicide, a potentially upsetting rape-like scene, and descriptions of mistreatment in a mental hospital.
Veronika Decides to Die (Veronika decide morrer in the original Porteguese) is set in Ljubljana, Slovenia, tells the story of Veronika (I suppose you could have parsed that one out), a 24 year old young woman, who has decided that she has reached the height of her life. She had determined that from this point that life and beauty will probably get no better, and out of no real sadness or unhappiness she has made, in her opinion, the perfectly rational decision to end her life. Her incompleted attempt on her own life winds her up in a mental institution called Villette, in Slovenia, where she awakens to the news that her attempt has irreparably damaged her heart; she is told she has only days to live.
The story is supposedly based on Coelho’s own experiences in mental institutions in his youth where his parents send him for refusing to acquiesce to their demands that he become an Engineer instead of a writer, or at least something useful and respectable. Coelho’s refusal to become something productive proved, to them, that he was “mad”. One of the central themes in Veronika is the idea that collective madness is really sanity, and that sanity is really in the hands of the beholder. Essentially, if everyone in a room, or even a kingdom, believes one reality to be the truth, except for a single person, irrespective of that one person’s authority (the doctor, a king, etc.), then the sanity of that authority is irrelevant, because it is the collective reality of the masses that matters and thus becomes the rational way of thinking.
The way you view this theme really depends on your views of people’s right to define their own mental abilities. I viewed this book through two very different lenses in my life, one where I was fighting my own mind, and one where I was coming to terms with myself instead; a period of self-acceptance rather than self-loathing (still working on that last part). Veronika depicts a mental institution that both suppresses people’s free will, yet allows them to stay beyond the requirement that binds them if they choose to do so. Don’t be fooled, however: There are still many things going on, such as forced medication, forced inside and outside time, and even a scene that describes, very graphically, a treatment of induced insulin shock that sends a patient into what she calls a state of astral travel. The balance of treatment of human dignity with that of the way that disabled people are often treated as objects to be shuffled around and poked and strapped down is troublesome at best, and hard to read without a watery field in front of you at… well my worst. Maybe not yours.
Very troubling to me is the overarching theme, embodied in Dr. Igor, the head psychiatrist at Villette, who has decided that Veronika, a beautiful and vibrant young girl, is wasting her life, and must be taught a Very Special Lesson. So sad, is it, that she has decided to throw away youth, and beauty, and that she is ignoring all that life must be waiting to hand her. He, obviously, knows her life better than she, and is uniquely prepared to teach her that she is, indeed, Doing It Wrong. R-O-N-G, even. How good of Dr. Igor, this man, to come and rescue this poor, helpless, and foolish girl from what might have been the worst mistake ever.
Dr. Igor has this theory, see, that people, like a defibirillator paddle on a heart, just need a jump start to avoid the heart attack that is this mental illness, something he calls “vitriol”. He believes he can shock people into appreciating life and just help them realize that they can simply buck up and learn to love life again.
I don’t want to spoil the book for you, gentle readers, if at this point you are still with me, so I won’t go into detail about how Veronika becomes not only the tool by which he provoke many of the residents of Villette, including Eduard, a patient diagnosed with schizophrenia who becomes a love interest for Veronica, and Mari who has frequent panic attacks. I also won’t tell you how Veronika learns her own Very Special Lesson, because she is not left out of that condescending rule of Dr. Igor who swings his diploma like a true Patriarch. She suddenly sees that she is free from the rules of a society that has given her a laundry list of expectations, and that she now may act like the “crazy” person that she is being treated like. No one believes that she just felt like ending her life, for no particular reason, so she may as well act the part. She starts to see the comfort that is Villette’s lack of accountability.
I think this book speaks strongly to the way that we dehumanize and mistrust mental health patients and people living with any variety of mental illness. Even if I don’t always appreciate Coelho’s delivery.
A caution to you, gentle readers: There is a rape-like scene, depending on how you read it (the first time I read the book, I did not read it this way, the second, I certainly did). Veronika performs a masturbatory act in front of a person who neither consents nor denies consent. It is fairly graphic in description, and it very much made me uncomfortable, no matter how “freeing” it made Veronika feel.
The book was made into a movie that I have not yet seen, as it didn’t appear at any theatre anywhere near where I was living. It stars Sarah Michelle Gellar as Veronika (a stellar choice, IMO), and David Thewlis, most well known to me as Professor Lupin from the Harry Potter series, as Dr. Igor. Should I get the chance (I love you, NetFlix, for coming to my APO!), I may revisit the review.
Who out there, gentle readers, fellow contributors, has read Veronika? Thoughts? Popcorn? Tomatoes?
Book Cover Image: Wikimedia Commons