10 May 2015

"Veronika Decides to Die"

Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, better known for his novel The Alchemist, has also written Veronika Decides to Die. Subtitled A Novel of Redemption, this short novel draws heavily on Coelho's youthful conflicts with his parents over his desire to pursue the arts and his personal experiences of commitment to a mental hospital.

In Veronika Decides to Die, the title character, an apparently successful but aimless twenty-something living in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, attempts suicide ostensibly in a protest over Western media ignorance of the very existence of her homeland and nation. As her story unfolds after her commitment to a mental institution, the deeper reasons for her action are traced to Veronika's submission to her parents' desires for her to live a conformist, upwardly-mobile, middle class life. Like Coelho's parents, Veronika's stifled her desire to pursue a career in the arts, in her case as a pianist.

Told by the manipulative medical director Dr. Igor that the pills she had taken to kill herself had so injured her heart that she was doomed to die in less than a week, Veronika's next days unfold in ever-increasing happiness as she frees herself from the shackles of parental and social expectations. Free for the first time as she approaches death, Veronika finally lives.

Early on I guessed that the story of her impending death was a lie; I was not disappointed. More than by its predictability, I was disappointed by Coelho's overuse of omniscient narration. Too much telling and not enough showing. And frankly I must admit that I found little sympathy for Veronika or any other of the major characters. It wasn't that I appreciated the tight limits of social conformity to which Veronika was expected to submit, it's just that the ultimate destination of her voyage of self-discovery was so, well, banal.

Veronika's personal and sexual enlightenment seemed straight out of the American 1960s. Perhaps the sexual revolution came later to Brazil and even later to the former Soviet bloc countries but still, I would hope that an insightful novelist would be able to see the rat-hole down which pursuit of individual personal autonomy has lead us.

Well, okay, maybe my last sentence was ironic. After all, the West is doubling down on autonomy notwithstanding the social disintegration it leaves in its wake. Which, perhaps, explains why books like Veronika Decides to Die are popular.

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