This is my second Paulo Coelho book after reading The Devil and Miss Prym a couple of years ago. It is book #90 on the 1001 Book List.
The novel is set in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the eponymous Veronkia is a beautiful young woman who seemingly should have the world at her feet. Instead she decides to die.
Veronika is loved by her parents, she has a steady job as a librarian and has had a string of boyfriends. She is not, however, happy with this life. She decides, in quite an organised way, to end her life. Her preference is by overdosing on sleeping pills, which she takes one day in her rented room in a convent.
Unfortunately for Veronika her attempt fails and she wakes in Villete, “the famous and much-feared lunatic asylum”. Not only does she find herself in this hospital, but she also finds that she has damaged her heart with her suicide attempt and will die within the week.
The remainder of the novel follows her last week in Villete and her interactions with some of the other inmates.
She meets Zedka who has been in Villete for depression, Mari who suffers from panic attacks and Eduard who is a young schizophrenic. Each of these individuals has something to teach Veronika about the state of life and a way of viewing what life is about. Mari has the most influence on Veronika’s thinking during her last week and in return Veronika’s situation impacts profoundly on these three people.
The discussion centres around how we look at life, what we make of it and our time living it. It really talks about the constriction of following the herd to the detriment of your own personality and needs; about cramming that square peg in to that round hole and the damage that does to a mind. I think this passage pretty much sums up Veronika’s feelings about this as she comes to terms with the idea that she is now dying slowly. She is talking to Eduard one night while he waits for her to play the piano.
‘No one should let themselves get used to anything, Eduard. Look at me, I was beginning to enjoy the sun again, the mountains, even life’s problems, I was beginning to accept that the meaninglessness of life was no one’s fault but mine. I wanted to see the main square in Ljubljana again, to feel hatred and love, despair and tedium, all those simple, foolish things that make up everyday life, but which give pleasure to your existence. If one day I could get out of here, I would allow myself to be mad, because everyone is, indeed, the maddest are the ones who don’t know they’re mad, but keep repeating what others tell them to.’
In a ‘madhouse’ it is normal to be yourself because it is expected. You have no need to conform and squash your square peg in to that round hole anymore. It’s quite an interesting idea, I thought.
On the following page, in another setting, there is a visitor telling a Sufi story about Nasrudin in which he puts his audience through trial after trial of waiting and bad behaviour on his part until the 1700 people who originally wanted to hear him speak is reduced to the final group of nine. At this point all of his bad behaviour ceases and he is himself again. I think what he tells his nine person audience is quite profound with regards to patience and acceptance.
“Those of you who stayed are the ones who will hear me,” he said. “You have passed through the two hardest tests on the spiritual road: the patience to wait for the right moment and the courage not to be disappointed with what you encounter. It is you I will teach.”
And, to be honest, the inner thoughts of Mari regarding punishment (she’s a lawyer) were cracking too and made me smile.
It was a shame that Allah, Jehovah, God – it didn’t matter what name you gave him – did not live in the world today, because if He did, we would still be in Paradise, while He would be mired in appeals, requests, demands, injunctions, preliminary verdicts, and would have to justify to innumerable tribunals His decision to expel Adam and Eve from Paradise for breaking an arbitrary rule with no foundation in law: Of the tree of knowledge of good and evil thou shalt not eat.
If He had not wanted that to happen, why did He put the tree in the midst of the garden and not outside the walls of Paradise? If she were called upon to defend the couple, Mari would undoubtedly accuse God of administrative negligence, because, as well as planting the tree in the wrong place, He had failed to surround it with warnings and barriers, had failed to adopt even minimal security arrangements, and had thus exposed everyone to danger.
Mari could also accuse him of inducement to criminal activity, for He had pointed out to Adam and Eve the exact place where the tree was to be found. If He had said nothing, generation upon generation would have passed on this earth without anyone taking the slightest interest in the forbidden fruit, since the tree was presumably in a forest full of similar trees, and therefore of no particular value.
But God had proceeded quite differently. He had devised a rule and then found a way of persuading someone to break it, merely in order to invent Punishment. He knew that Adam and Eve would become bored with perfection and would, sooner or later, test His patience. He set a trap, perhaps because He, Almighty God, was also bored with everything going so smoothly: if Eve had not eaten the apple, nothing of any interest would have happened in the last few billion years.
This musing does go on a bit more, but you get the idea. It is very clever and very thoughtful. The writing, as always, is a pleasure to read. It seems to translate very well and is easily enjoyed.
I think I prefer The Devil and Miss Prym, but this is still a very interesting read and a good reminder to focus on what you make of your life – not what others want you to make of it.