My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Veronika Decides to Die is about a young Slovenian woman, Veronika, who attempts suicide, fails, is institutionalized, and is informed that her attempted suicide damaged her heart and she has only five days to live. In the hospital she has to come to grips with what it means to be dying, but also what it means to be insane.
The book deals with the effect of Veronika’s death sentence diagnosis on her as well as on other patients with whom she interacts. The first patient Veronika comes in contact with is a depressive named Zedka who offers Veronika advice and insight. Then there is Maria, a woman who withdrew from her professional and family life to be institutionalized because she was having inexplicable panic attacks. Finally, there is Eduardo, a schizophrenic who is virtually non-functional when he meets Veronika, but who ends up in a relationship with the young woman nonetheless. These patients come to realize that they are hiding out at the hospital. They stay in the hospital because they are free to defy norms without judgment. When Veronika decides she doesn’t want to die hiding out, it has a profound impact on the others.
The book borrows heavily upon Coelho’s personal experience. He was institutionalized as a young man by parents who were disturbed when he went artsy and began hanging out with undesirables. Interestingly, Coelho has a cameo role in the book as himself. In the book he writes an article that playfully asks the question, “Where is Slovenia?” When Veronika is waiting to die from her overdose, she reads the article and decides to write a letter to the editor claiming that she killed herself because of the depressing effect of Coelho’s suggestion that nobody who’s anybody knows or cares where Slovenia is located.
In the end Veronika finds that she is truly free. Veronika seems to have everything at the beginning of the story: a job, boyfriends, and popularity. However, it’s those things that she comes to feel enslave her, and that’s what leads to the attempted suicide. In a way, Veronika is doubly freed. She is free because she is dying, and what can one do to a dying person. Second, she has been labeled crazy, and, having such a label, people expect her to act oddly. She has the freedom to do those things she has been too frightened to do all her life.
I’d recommend this book. It’s short, readable, and offers clear food for thought.