Veronika Decides to Die: A book about existence and living

Article written by: Chitkala Sharma

Originally written in Portuguese by Paulo Coelho, the novel ‘Veronika Decides to Die’ takes the reader on a saga of life and death and makes one ponder about the meaning of life.

With a title as bold as that, the story begins with a 24-year-old Slovenian woman deciding to kill herself, even though she has everything in her life. In her defence, there is no point in having everything in life, if it is all completely and utterly boring and monotonous. Although the book was published in 1998, our generation could not relate to this more. We are trapped in a constant fight between breaking free from monotony and being trapped in a typical 9-5 job that surely pays us well, and helps us have a secure future.

With an issue as sensitive as suicide and depression, the author sets a picturesque premise and instantly connects us with Veronika – be it her decision to die, her choice of the how to die, or even the reason to do so. Readers get a peek into Veronika’s mind – or so it seems – for we begin to have hundreds of burning questions about her thought processes, as she prepares to die rather unsentimentally. A reader goes through a tornado of contrasting views in an attempt to understand Veronika’s death, or maybe life 😉 The book proceeds meticulously describing the life at a mental asylum: the environment, patients, cruelty of it, and perhaps, even the solace one could find amidst all of this.

Ironically, through a story about dying, the author mysteriously weaves subtle ideas about our perspective towards living. The following brief summary could give you an idea about how he managed to do so:

Veronika decides to die. Quite predictably, she fails. She is admitted to a mental asylum, where she meets different people experiencing life in different ways: some try to convince her that she must live, some just offer her material comforts. She doesn’t want anything from anyone. Veronika has one goal – to end life soon, and peacefully. Sadly, every time she attempts to kill herself, she is prevented. The doctor who is treating her announces to her that she only has a few days to live, due to the effects of pills she took earlier and that that had caused an irreversible damage to her heart. Veronika is a part of his experiment – a cure for insanity. Now, Veronika waits for death, rather afraid this time. With the little time she has left, Veronika spends pondering, observing and living. The doctor treating her continues to experiment on Veronika. In her pursuit to understand and live life for what it is, she meets Eduard, a schizophrenic, whom she falls in love with. Veronika now wants to live for Eduard, and escapes from the asylum with him. The doctor succeeds in his experiment.

The stigma about mental illness is wonderfully discussed when an inmate of the asylum, Zedka, narrates the story of how everyone in a kingdom drank water from a poisoned well and went mad, except the king and his family who had a separate well for themselves. Because a majority of the people had gone mad, everybody in the kingdom just assumes that it is the king’s family who’s gone mad. Zedka then points out that everybody outside the asylum are like people who have been drinking from the same well. This reminded me of the Arabic saying “Birds born in cages think freedom is a crime.” Upon reading that bit, one begins to ponder about what really is normal.

A varied range of perspectives about suicide, depression and schizophrenia are provided throughout the book.
When Veronika learns that she has only a few days to live, she tries to learn more about life. She journeys back into her past. She also begins a journey inward. She begins to truly live her life by playing the piano, dancing and talking to Eduard.

It is pretty clear that Eduard has a huge role to play in Veronika’s new found love towards life. He encourages her to play the piano to her heart’s content, introduces her to Sufism and narrates different stories having philosophical perspectives. With every day nearing her death, Veronika wants to live more with Eduard. The romantic duel between Veronika wanting to live with Eduard and her knowing everything is temporary takes any reader on an inward journey into their own minds. Do we all need someone like Eduard to find the will to live? Is there a necessity to have others around us to make life worthwhile? If so, why did Veronika decide to die in the first place; she had loving parents, supportive friends and lots of lovers! Does the knowledge that all her experiences were only temporary help Veronika appreciate life more? Does that mean we need to apprehend that everything, even the good things, will be gone some day?

I was able to find answers to some of these questions through this book, while for answering others, I had to turn to my own life. I read this book while I was doing my internship in the psychology department, and I was fortunate enough to meet quite a few people who were still battling with the idea of dying. All the while I observed them, I wondered if people could change their minds about their idea of dying, had they read this book earlier.

The book which is written based on author’s own experiences with mental illness begins by addressing pressing issues such as depression and the stigma related to it, and ends with a philosophical note in the doctor’s thesis – “An Awareness of Death Encourages Us to Live More Intensely”; all the while indirectly providing insights about seeking help, effect of spiritual awareness and finding hope.

The book is also so much more than a self-help book! It guides us to gain/regain perspective about the very meaning of life and, more importantly, introspect about our purpose here. So, it is also very relatable to people who do not want to die. For me, this book was life changing for it helped me regain my focus on the purpose of my life. But first, it took me on a massive roller-coaster of emotions for months together!

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