Veronika Decides to Die (Book, 1998)


If you had asked, then I would admit openly to you that basic thoughts of suicide have crossed my mind before. You didn’t so I admit it of my own volition. Considering the majority view, my feelings on death and taking one’s own life are perhaps strange. I fully believe in an individual’s right to die. I don’t see it as a noble action – it isn’t the “falling on your sword” of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Yet, I refuse to view it as an ignoble one either. Free will (or its illusion) sometimes mean choices that have led you to a cliff’s edge where your only options are death by waiting or death by falling.

As much as the thought has crossed my mind, it would be a lie to say I have seriously considered the matter. It would also be a lie to say that my case is hopeless. Taking my own life would merely be an excuse to avoid the trials and tribulations that await me. It would also be a waste because, for lack of a more humble statement, I am an awesome person. Arguably, I’d say this is the case for many who do consider suicide and even commit it: they are awesome people, unaware or unattached from that simple reality. Even worse, the news stories I read about suicides often show brief portraits of individuals whose company I imagine I would have enjoyed.

Despite our right to die, I believe it is more important that we recognize our right to live. Untrammeled by so many of the anxieties that we inflict upon ourselves because society tells us we should, we’d all be freer, happier, and even more alive. That’s where I fail. I spend my days walking backward, staring at the footsteps I have previously taken. Though I have walked many paths through loss and despair, I never turn to face the future; instead, I snarl weakly at the past.

Veronika Decides to Die is a not a book I enjoyed as entertainment, but instead one I cherished because I understood it. I could see my fear of life and of the living in each of the book’s characters. I have never faced the challenge of living in a mental institution and I have never allowed anyone to brand me as anything other than normal, but I am empathetic toward the plight of those who have. Direct experience with my brother and his bipolar illness gave me a lot of sympathy, but it is the dealings I have had with my own mind that gave me empathy.

The story is about Veronika, a twenty-something Slovenian girl who decides quite calmly one evening to end her own life with sleeping pills. “Instead of crushing them and mixing them with water, she decided to take them one by one, because there is always a gap between intention and action, and she wanted to feel free to turn back halfway.” The attempt fails and she wakes up in a notorious local mental institution where she is informed that her failed suicide has created irreparable damage to her heart and she will soon die. With her wish delayed but guaranteed, the story unfolds as Veronika comes to grips with her condition, the other people in the institution, and they with her.

Written by Brazilian, Paulo Coelho, Veronika’s story is partly-autobiographical, taken from his own experiences in mental institutions in his late teens/early twenties. One of the other characters that you meet in the mental institution is more directly based on his story, but Coelho decided to write about his experience rather than his actual experience because he didn’t want to upset his elderly father, who was still living at the time he wrote the book. I can relate to that point too. As far as I know, no one related to me reads anything I write, and neither of my parents have ever requested to do so. I’d probably refuse if they did. I prefer my freedom to speak honestly, rather than a fear to speak at all.

The scary and brilliant thing about a book such as this one are the truths you’ve long believed for yourself yet never voiced or had never seen voiced. For instance, one character’s view of rainy days: “Oddly enough I never used to suffer from depression on cold, gray, cloudy days like this. I felt as if nature was in harmony with me, that it reflected my soul.” Or a thought that has plagued me ever since I graduated college: “In adolescence she thought it was too early to choose; now, in young adulthood, she was convinced it was too late to change.”

It’s scary because these are thoughts you always assumed were your own. The fact that they were popular enough to be written into a book by some other person, worlds away from you diminishes that uniqueness. In your own bid to justify your feelings of despair, loss, and madness, you use them as a foundation for the person you believe yourself to be. In so doing, you create a new reality in which you are fundamentally apart from the whole of you humanity. You lock yourself away in a room that you yourself have constructed.

The brilliance, of course, comes from the realization of this. You are not unique because you are troubled, you are troubled because you’ve made yourself out to be unique. Functional and successful people are just as dysfunctional and unsuccessful as you are, only they have learned to ignore it or (better) use it to their advantage. ‘Weird’ and ‘normal’ are labels we use not to describe reality, but to tear it apart into bite-sized pieces that we can separate, measure, quantify, and sometimes discard.

It is difficult to be a human being of any sort. We are simultaneously aware of our limitations and our freedom to overcome them. The smarter our brains get, the more inward they often turn toward critiquing every bit of sensory data that enters into our being. If unchecked, that same critical eye can turn destructive, pulling at the sinews of self until the inner mind loses shape and falls into madness. Perhaps that is why shared experiences through books, music, movies, and games are so important. More than the socialization and the camaraderie, they also expose us intimately to the minds of others and give us a brief doorway to leave the lonely houses that are our individual souls.

Even when I realize that, I still have to fight myself to live: I constantly self-regulate. As Coelho writes, “Stop thinking all the time that you’re in the way, that you’re bothering the person next to you. If people don’t like it, they can complain. And if they don’t have the courage to complain, that’s their problem.” I am getting better at the whole ‘stop worrying about toes and just dance’ thing, but it isn’t easy for me.

This may have read less like a review and more like any other post, but I assure you that these thoughts are perfectly in line with Veronika Decides to Die. Their bubbling up to the surface and presence here on this page are at least partially due to my having read it. If you can at all relate to what I have said here, then I think this is an important book that you should read. If you cannot relate, then this book is even more important. Veronika Decides to Die offers real insight into the dangers of being a human being in the modern world, the sort of truths that often go ignored, undiscussed, or purposefully hidden. It is exactly the sort of book we should all be discussing with one another, whether we can relate to it or not.

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5 thoughts on “Veronika Decides to Die (Book, 1998)”

  1. I think you put a lot of insight into what I took from this when I read it as well. What it means to be human, here and now. What it means to be happy; how we have this commercialized idea of happiness, when in reality it is such a subjective thing. I am actually re-reading it now, and would love to discuss once it’s done. I’m also going to read the Alchemist.

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    1. Yeah, I hope to read more of his work in the future. His writing style is accessible, though not very special. It’s the ideas and his ability to capture some real humanity that I find truly worthwhile.

      I’d love to discuss it anytime. We might have to skip over some of the more blushworthy parts though! I think I understood them, but that one scene where Veronika completely let herself go was very unexpected. As was some of the language she used describing the sorts of relationships she wanted to have with men in her last days.

      I am worried I may be more of a prude and/or feminist than I had hoped!

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    1. Agreed. That was always my problem with Academics, most Sciences, Philosophy, Religion, Economics, etc. So much of our greatest achievements of knowledge want to paint mankind as a perfectly rational creature or as a creature whose sole goal is to obtain that perfect rationality.

      Passion is the soul set on fire. It burns like a motherfucker, but if you get used to the warmth, it makes an otherwise frigid life a lot easier to bear.

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