Veronica Decides To Die is a novel by Paulo Coelho. I write the review in English, though I read the book in Spanish, so it may be that many aspects of the book’s language may have disappeared in translation.
The novel deals with several significant issues impinging upon the lives of ostensibly ordinary people. But, perhaps because of social definition, perhaps via self-identification, perhaps as a result of the hand dealt by experience, these people are treated by the ordinary in extraordinary ways. Veronica and her associates are treated in very special ways indeed, receiving amongst other things doses of insulin high enough to incapacitate and electro convulsive therapy designed to stimulate temporary amnesia. They are all, for the purposes of Veronica Decides To Die, inmates of an asylum.
And the location is important. The asylum, probably referred to by some as a madhouse, is in Ljubljana, Slovenia, just at the time when the former republic of Yugoslavia is in the process of breaking up. There is a strange and, certainly within these pages, little exploited parallel between the mental disintegration of these individuals and the break-up of a state that has previously sought advantage in unity and incorporation. Thus, the novel examines – though none too deeply – the relationship between sanity and madness, unity and separateness, individuality and society, personal and accepted response.
Elements of plot may be discovered by readers of the novel. But nothing is revealed by recording that interactions between four of the asylum’s inmates, Veronika, Eduard, Zedka and Mari that form the backbone of the book, along with their relationship to Doctor Igor, who is in charge of their care and also his own research project. We encounter the histories of these characters and find clues as to why they may have chosen less than conventional ways to express themselves.
And it is the developing relationship between the eponymous Veronica and Eduard, a schizophrenic young man, that forms the central thrust of the story. At the start of the book, Veronica wants to die. She is depressed. She jokes about how no one on the planet seems to have any idea where her country, Slovenia, might be, as it emerges from the conflict, pain and growing wreckage of Yugoslavia. But for Slovenia, nation status was being achieved for the first time in his modern history. It had always been part of somewhere else, perhaps like every individual was forever incorporated into some social group loosely labelled “society”. Isolated, alone, many individuals struggle to define or cope with their own individuality, a void which, unchecked or unfilled, may lead them along paths that grow unfamiliar.
In some ways, Veronika’s despair at feeling alone in the world drives her to take an overdose. She survives. But she is changed, mentally and physically, and so is admitted to an asylum for treatment. It is there she meets Eduardo and others, whose individual histories have created their separation from what is perceived as normal by the rest of some vague notion called “society”. These principal characters relive some of their past experiences to illustrate what might have brought about the changes in their characters, transformations noted by others that led to their isolation.
Their stories are not unlike the unique concordance of events that were currently propelling a nation to an independence it had previously never known. It was the rest of the world that was creating the conditions, but it was Slovenia that changed. For these people something caused them to react or behave differently from the norm, hence their status, but it may have been the actions of others, or indeed circumstance that created the conditions that changed them.
A weakness of Veronika Decides To Die lies in its tendency to be both analytical and rational, without ever actually declaring itself to be rooted in either concept. Equally, by the end, this might be its strength, because there is always room for interpretation. Characters within its pages do analyse their relationship to the spiritual, the religious, and occasionally the chemically induced. They explore themselves, discover new or previously ignored aspects of themselves and are surprised in the process.
By the end, the characters have engaged. But they have apparently been fulfilling someone else’s purpose throughout, someone invested with society’s authority to observe and monitor. Whether that person is the doctor in charge of the asylum or the writer holding the pencil is an interesting question.