Veronika Decides to Die is the second instalment in Paulo Coelho’s On the Seventh Day trilogy, the first of which didn’t go down so well with me. On the plus side, I liked Veronika Decides to Die much more than By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, but then to be fair it would have been difficult for me to like it any less.
The book, as the title rather aptly suggests, is about a girl named Veronika who decides to die. She decides to kill herself, not because she’s feeling depressed as such, but because she’s feeling rather apathetic and dissatisfied with her life and how far she’s come (which I find rather concerning, as I think it’d be a hard ask to find anyone who doesn’t feel fed up and apathetic at times). Rather strangely, she writes a letter attributing her suicide to the fact that a percentage of the population don’t know where to find Slovenia, her home country, on a world map. Veronika later wakes up in a psychiatric hospital, where she discovers that although her suicide attempt appears to have failed, she has irreversibly damaged her heart and will probably be dead within the week. But during this week Veronika starts to regret what she’s done and mourns for the life she will be leaving behind, while at the same time finally feeling free enough to spend her last week exactly as she sees fit.
It’s a bit of a strange book, less goddish than By the River Piedra (thank goodness) and more spiritual than religious. There is a lot of waffley love nonsense along the way, which is a bit too namby-pamby for me to really get behind, but on the whole I was surprised by the fact that I liked it (or at least that I didn’t hate it as much as By the River Piedra).
There were some rather unexpected aspects within the book. For a start, Paulo Coelho himself features. He wrote himself into the story, very briefly, as someone who had either met Veronika or heard of her story through a friend of his, also called Veronika. It was something like that anyway, I forget what exactly as I was too busy trying to work out the relevance of his appearance. It didn’t really seem to fit in. Perhaps he was trying to draw attention to the fact that he has first-hand experience of this kind of thing, as his parents had committed him to a psychiatric institution in his younger days for, of all things, wanting to be a writer. That genuinely happened! What a strange world we live in, where wanting to be a writer is akin to madness. And yet now Paulo Coelho is the most successful Portugese language author in the world. Perhaps that ambition’s looking a bit less mad now after all!
Now, I would hate to make assumptions about writers and their subject matters, but considering that my experience of Paulo Coelho’s works thus far (The Alchemist and On the Seventh Day trilogy) have all been rather religious, superstitious, moralistic and (let’s face it) a tad on the preachy side, I was stunned to stumble upon such an extended masturbation scene in Veronika Decides to Die. It was very unexpected and more than a bit weird. The focus placed on it would suggest it was a major turning point in the story – a chance for Veronika to forgo all her inhibitions and spend her last week behaving exactly as she wants – and maybe it was, but I also felt like it was included purely for the sake of it, to keep the reader on their toes perhaps. I felt like it was intended to be a serious, groundbreaking moment highlighting the changes in Veronika’s thoughts and attitudes, but to be honest I found it rather funny which, I’m fairly sure, was not the desired response.
It was quite an interesting book in many ways. I’ve always found psychiatric theories, diagnoses and treatments completely fascinating, and I rather enjoyed the bumbling nature of the psychiatrist, who is so completely self-assured in his convictions and yet seems to have resigned common sense utterly and misunderstands even the most basic of principles (or does he?). It certainly had more of a discernible plot to it than By the River Piedra (again, not hard. Like I said before, I still don’t have the faintest clue what was happening in that ridiculous book). I think Veronika Decides to Die is probably my favourite book of the trilogy, but I’m not convinced that I’ll ever feel the need to dip my toes into the pool of Paulo Coelho’s spiritual meanderings again.