"We're all mad here."
- the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
About Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coehlo: Twenty-four-year-old Veronika seems to have everything -- youth and beauty, boyfriends and a loving family, a fulfilling job. But something is missing in her life. So, one cold November morning Veronika decides to die. She takes a handful of sleeping pills expecting never to wake up. But she does -- at a mental hospital where she is told that she has only days to live.
This poignant international bestseller by the author of The Alchemist takes readers on a quest to find meaning in a culture overshadowed by angst, soulless routine, and pervasive conformity. Based on events in Coelho's own life, Veronika Decides to Die questions the meaning of madness and celebrates individuals who do not fit into patterns society considers to be normal. Bold and illuminating, it is a dazzling portrait of a young woman at the crossroads of despair and liberation, and a poetic, exuberant appreciation of each day as a renewed opportunity.
My two centsPaulo Coehlo is one of those authors many wax poetic. I haven't read his popular The Alchemist so I have no preconceptions about him or his writing. However, the blurb and the intro for this book carries some heavy heavy realities of Coehlo's personal struggle with depression and suicide, so I started this book warier than usual (semi-autobiographies are often tough to read).
Veronika is young, beautiful and has her whole life ahead of her. But she's unhappy - not in the dramatic, emotional, dark way that we've come to think of depression - but in the insidious, under-the- radar type of way. In fact, while Veronika is waiting for her overdose of pills to take effect, she is stressing about a tech article that came out in a magazine that chirpily asks "Where is Slovenia?" It triggers something strangely patriotic in her and it occurs to her that since she is in the middle of writing a tell-off letter to the editor that people may connect her suicide with this teeny tiny detail.
But her suicide attempt is thwarted as she wakes up and realizes that she is confined in a mental institution called Villete. She is told that she has irreversibly damaged her heart and that she has only days to live. Unexpectedly this awakens the desire in Veronika to fight for her life, and by default, enjoy her last moments on earth. In her so-called "journey back to sanity," she comes to the "aha" moment that she can simply do what she wants to do - inhibitions and convention be damned - as people are tolerant at least and oblivious at best to those who are labelled mad.
What Veronika doesn't realize is that she is also affecting her fellow patients, who are shocked out of their complacency by the incongruity of Veronika's situation. One of these is a long-time patient, Zedka, who is clinically depressed. Another is Mari who has panic attacks. Lastly there is schizophrenic Eduard, initially attracted by Veronika's piano playing and with whom Veronika eventually falls in love.
Explored in this slyly humorous account of Veronika's Villete stay is the concept that the world is actually collectively mad. What is insanity? It is subjective, depending on which "side of Villete" you're looking at it from. What if the mad ones weren't the people confined in asylums, the outliers, the oddities? What if they were the sane ones and everyone else in the world is mad? This brings to my mind the grinning Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland who proclaims to Alice "We're all mad here." Flipping the idea of madness on its head brings to light that sometimes it takes the desire to buck convention or conformity to be able to live joyously and honestly.
There is a surprise twist at the end that made me go "What!?" Things really have a way of working themselves out, whether by grand design or by serendipity. I still choose to think that the world is a generally benevolent place - it is up to us how we choose to live in it.