Fiction: “Veronika Decides to Die” by Paulo Coelho

veronika“Goodness, Alaina, this sounds like a cheery little thing. What on earth could have made you want to read something like this?”

“First of all, Little Miss Opinionated, let me remind you that I have read a lot of books in my day, and every once in a while I can appreciate when a book tells me in its title what the story is going to be about. Second of all, the copy I had was a total of 210 short, well-spaced-out pages, so I read it in like, a week. And thirdly, it’s a master work of literature. No other factors were used in my decision-making when it came to deciding to read the book.”

[Spoiler alert: Sarah Michelle Gellar also starred in the film adaptation, and, much like Gillian Anderson, I’ll watch Sarah Michelle Gellar in anything. And before y’all get on your high horse about Buffy and how she was awesome in that, yes, I agree with you, but I’ve been a fan of Sarah Michelle Gellar since she was the original Kendall Hart on All My Children. I remember when she got Erica all riled up enough to stab Dimitri with a letter opener! Basically, when it comes to Sarah Michelle Gellar, step off, I’ve loved her longer than you.]

I am constantly competitive with myself. I keep records of what books I read in what month (which comes in handy now, seeing as how I couldn’t remember if I had read this in March or February, because it takes me for-fucking-ever to review books now, for stupid reasons) per year, dating back to before this blog. So I’m constantly playing a game with myself when it comes to reading: have I read more books in [MONTH] than I did in [MONTH] last year? How many books had I read by this time last year, and have I passed that mark?

At the beginning of March, I had finished my ninth book in 2016 (Live and Let Die), coming in under the wire thanks to February 29th. Compare that to 2015, on March 1st, I had only completed 4 books. And because I wanted to get a head-start on 2016, hoping to finally achieve that elusive, 50-title goal, I picked a couple of short books in March in an attempt to pad out my head start.

Wandering through the shelves of the Yarmouth library, I found this title, and was very encouraged by the thinness of the book. Plus, I could almost do a That’s What She Read-Movies Alaina’s Never Seen tie-in, if I wanted to. (I decided I didn’t want to, because I actually did watch the film [it’s on Netflix right now!], and it matches the book’s plot very well. It wouldn’t provide the same delight as my Tie-In with Moonraker did.)

As an added bonus, I had downloaded a spreadsheet years ago about the 1,001 books to read before you die, and Veronika Decides to Die was one of them. Another checkmark earned!

The story takes place in Mr. Coelho’s native Slovakia. Veronika is 24 years old, and she decides to commit suicide, as there is no joy to be found in her life now, or in the future. I didn’t take a picture or copy the quote before returning the book to the library, but her reasoning was– actually, I’m going to quote the film, because it might be actually lifted from the book, but even if it wasn’t, it’s an excellent summary:

“Well, let’s see. After you decide that I’m depressed, or whatever, you’ll put me on meds, right? Well I know hundreds of people on them and they’re all doing just fine. Really. I’ll go back to work on my new anti-depressants, have dinner with my parents and persuade them I’m back to being the normal one who never gives them any trouble. And one day some guy will ask me to marry him. He’ll be nice enough. That’ll make my parents very happy. The first year we’ll make love all the time, and in the second and third less and less. But just as we’re getting sick of each other, I’ll get pregnant. Taking care of kids, holding onto jobs, paying mortgages; it’ll keep us on an even keel for a while. Then about ten years into it he’ll have an affair because I’m too busy and I’m too tired. And I’ll find out. I’ll threaten to kill him, his mistress… myself. We’ll get past it. A few years later he’ll have another one. This time I’m just going to pretend that I don’t know because somehow kicking up a fuss just doesn’t seem worth the trouble this time. And I’ll live out the rest of my days sometimes wishing my kids could have the life that I never had. Other times secretly pleased they’re turning into repeats of me. I’m fine. Really.” [Veronika Decides to Die, 2009 [via imdb.com]]

Well, neighbors call on Veronika when she’s in the midst of her pill-induced overdose, and when she wakes up, she’s in Villette, a state-sponsored insane asylum, put there by her parents in an attempt to get her help. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Igor (not making it up), tells her she was in a coma for two weeks, and also, the overdose created a heart condition, and now she only has one week to live. And no, he won’t release her from the asylum so she can overdose again; she needs to be monitored.

Basically, the whole thing is a sham: Dr. Igor only told her that she was dying so she could learn how wonderful life is: to treat every day she has on Earth as a miracle, and to inspire her to live life to its fullest. And it takes a while – Veronika finds a piano in a sitting room and remembers how much she wanted to be a pianist, but her parents and her lack of risk-taking turned her into a stable librarian instead. She first reconnects with her passion through music.

She also realizes that, while in an insane asylum, no one will give a second thought about her if she starts to act “crazy” – in other words, telling people what she thinks without filtering her thoughts, or acting out violently; those acts have no consequence, because she’s already been labeled “crazy” by her placement in the asylum.

And as she realizes that, she gets back in touch with her “true” self – the self unfettered by Society.

[Veronika] finished her studies, went to university, got a good degree, but ended up working as a librarian.

“I should have been crazier.” But, as it undoubtedly happens with some people, she had found this out too late.  [p. 94-95]

This quote resonates with me, because I too find myself wishing, occasionally, that I had been crazier growing up. But Society pressured me into playing Life extremely safe: my focus was entirely on being financially stable. I transferred to a state school because a) it was more affordable, and b) it offered a better education. In accounting. And now, ten years after graduation, I am finally using my degree and enjoying it – in a government job, the epitome of risk-averse. After all, the only things guaranteed in life are death and taxes.

And now, where I’m facing a future where I no longer need to assure my financial stability and can start working on a personal life, I don’t even know where to begin to break myself out of my shell. Because that, to me, would mean I would need to be ‘crazy.’ And I don’t know how.

ANYWAY, enough about me. In the end, Veronika falls in love with Eduard, another patient who only begins to speak after he and Veronika share a connection, and together they escape the asylum. Dr. Igor ends the novel with an entry in his diary where he admits that someday Veronika will eventually see another doctor, and that doctor will tell her that her heart is perfectly healthy; but until she does, she will treat every day as a miracle. Which, every day is, really.

In short, it’s not as depressing as the title makes it out to be, and if you like novels with a philosophical bent, you would probably appreciate this.

The movie, however, tells the story just as nicely, plus stars Sarah Michelle Gellar. Oh, and Professor Lupin plays Dr. Igor, so that’s nice too.

Grade for Veronika Decides to Die: 3 stars

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