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Veronika Decides to Die: A Novel of Redemption, Page 2

Paulo Coelho

  There was no shortage of people who, in their desire to get rid of some family member because of arguments over an inheritance (or over that person's embarrassing behavior), were willing to pay large sums of money to obtain a medical report that would allow the internment of their problem children or parents. Others, fleeing from debts or trying to justify certain attitudes that could otherwise result in long prison sentences, spent a brief time in the asylum and then simply left without paying any penalty or undergoing any judicial process.

  Villete was the place from which no one had ever escaped, where genuine lunatics--sent there by the courts or by other hospitals--mingled with those merely accused of insanity or those pretending to be insane. The result was utter confusion, and the press was constantly publishing tales of ill treatment and abuse, although they had never been given permission to visit Villete and see what was actually happening. The government was investigating the complaints but could get no proof; the shareholders threatened to spread the word that foreign investment was difficult in Slovenia, and so the institution managed to remain afloat; indeed, it went from strength to strength.

  "My aunt killed herself a few months ago," the female voice continued. "For almost eight years she was too afraid even to leave her room, eating, getting fat, smoking, taking tranquilizers and sleeping most of the time. She had two daughters and a husband who loved her."

  Veronika tried but failed to move her head in the direction of the voice.

  "I only saw her fight back once, when her husband took a lover. Then she kicked up a fuss, lost a few pounds, smashed some glasses and--for weeks on end--kept the rest of the whole neighborhood awake with her shouting. Absurd though it may seem, I think that was the happiest time of her life. She was fighting for something; she felt alive and capable of responding to the challenges facing her."

  What's all that got to do with me? thought Veronika, unable to say anything. I'm not your aunt and I haven't got a husband.

  "In the end, her husband got rid of his lover," said the woman, "and gradually, my aunt returned to her former passivity. One day she phoned to say that she wanted to change her life: She'd given up smoking. That same week, after increasing the number of tranquilizers she was taking because she'd stopped smoking, she told everyone that she wanted to kill herself.

  "No one believed her. Then, one morning she left a message on my machine, saying good-bye, and she gassed herself. I listened to that message several times: I had never heard her sound so calm, so resigned to her fate. She said she was neither happy nor unhappy, and that was why she couldn't go on."

  Veronika felt sorry for the woman telling the story, for she seemed to be doing so in an attempt to understand her aunt's death. In a world where everyone struggles to survive whatever the cost, how could one judge those people who decide to die?

  No one can judge. Each person knows the extent of their own suffering or the total absence of meaning in their lives. Veronika wanted to explain that, but instead she choked on the tube in her mouth, and the woman hurried to her aid.

  She saw the woman bending over her bound body, which was full of tubes and protected against her will. She openly expressed desire to destroy it. She moved her head from side to side, pleading with her eyes for them to remove the tubes and let her die in peace.

  "You're upset," said the woman. "I don't know if you're sorry about what you did or if you still want to die; that doesn't interest me. What interests me is doing my job. If the patient gets agitated, the regulations say I must give them a sedative."

  Veronika stopped struggling, but the nurse was already injecting something into her arm. Soon afterward, she was back in a strange dreamless world, where the only thing she could remember was the face of the woman she had just seen: green eyes, brown hair, and a very distant air, the air of someone doing things because she has to do them, never questioning why the rules say this or that.

  Paulo Coelho heard about Veronika's story three months later, when he was having supper in an Algerian restaurant in Paris with a Slovenian friend, also called Veronika, who happened to be the daughter of the doctor in charge at Villete.

  LATER, WHEN he decided to write a book about the subject, he considered changing his friend's name in order not to confuse the reader. He thought of calling her Blaska or Edwina or Marietzja, or some other Slovenian name, but he ended up keeping the real names. When he referred to his friend Veronika, he would call her his friend Veronika. When he referred to the other Veronika, there would be no need to describe her at all, because she would be the central character in the book, and people would get irritated if they were always having to read "Veronika the lunatic," or "Veronika the one who tried to commit suicide." Besides, both he and his friend Veronika would only take up a very brief part of the book, this one.

  His friend Veronika was horrified at what her father had done, especially bearing in mind that he was the director of an institution seeking respectability and was himself working on a thesis that would be judged by the conventional academic community.

  "Do you know where the word 'asylum' comes from?" she was saying. "It dates back to the Middle Ages, from a person's right to seek refuge in churches and other holy places. The right to asylum is something any civilized person can understand. So how could my father, the director of an asylum, treat someone like that?"

  Paulo Coelho wanted to know all the details of what had happened, because he had a genuine reason for finding out about Veronika's story.

  The reason was the following: He himself had been committed to an asylum or, rather, mental hospital, as they were better known. And this had happened not once but three times, in 1965, 1966, and 1967. The place where he had been interned was the Dr. Eiras Sanatorium in Rio de Janeiro.

  Precisely why he had been committed to the hospital was something that, even today, he found odd. Perhaps his parents were confused by his unusual behavior. Half shy, half extrovert, he had the desire to be an "artist," something that everyone in the family considered a perfect recipe for ending up a social outcast and dying in poverty.

  When Paulo Coelho thought about it--and, it must be said, he rarely did--he considered the real madman to have been the doctor who had agreed to commit him for the flimsiest of reasons (as in any family, the tendency is always to place the blame on others, and to state adamantly that the parents didn't know what they were doing when they made that drastic decision).

  Paulo laughed when he learned of the strange letter to the newspapers that Veronika had left behind, complaining that an important French magazine didn't even know where Slovenia was.

  "No one would kill themselves over something like that."

  "That's why the letter had no effect," said his friend Veronika, embarrassed. "Yesterday, when I checked in at the hotel, the receptionist thought Slovenia was a town in Germany."

  He knew the feeling, for many foreigners believed the Argentine city of Buenos Aires to be the capital of Brazil.

  But apart from having foreigners blithely compliment him on the beauty of his country's capital city (which was to be found in the neighboring country of Argentina), Paulo Coelho shared with Veronika the fact just mentioned but which is worth restating: He too had been committed to a mental hospital and, as his first wife had once remarked, "should never have been let out."

  But he was let out. And when he left the sanatorium for the last time, determined never to go back, he had made two promises: (a) that he would one day write about the subject, and (b) that he would wait until both his parents were dead before touching publicly on the issue, because he didn't want to hurt them, since both had spent many years of their lives blaming themselves for what they had done.

  His mother had died in 1993, but his father, who had turned eighty-four in 1997, was still alive and in full possession of his mental faculties and his health, despite having emphysema (even though he'd never smoked) and despite living entirely off frozen food because he couldn't get a housekeeper who would put up with his eccentrici

  So, when Paulo Coelho heard Veronika's story, he discovered a way of talking about the issue without breaking his promises. Even though he had never considered suicide, he had an intimate knowledge of the world of the mental hospital--the treatments, the relationships between doctors and patients, the comforts and anxieties of living in a place like that.

  So let us allow Paulo Coelho and his friend Veronika to leave this book for good, and let us get on with the story.

  Veronika didn't know how long she had slept. She remembered waking up at one point--still with the life--preserving tubes in her mouth and nose--and hearing a voice say:

  DO YOU want me to masturbate you?"

  But now, looking round the room with her eyes wide open, she didn't know if that had been real or a hallucination. Apart from that one memory, she could remember nothing, absolutely nothing.

  The tubes had been taken out, but she still had needles stuck all over her body, wires connected to the areas around her heart and her head, and her arms were still strapped down. She was naked, covered only by a sheet, and she felt cold, but she was determined not to complain. The small area surrounded by green curtains was filled by the bed she was lying on, the machinery of the Intensive Care Unit, and a white chair on which a nurse was sitting reading a book.

  This time the woman had dark eyes and brown hair. Even so Veronika was not sure if it was the same person she had talked to hours--or was it days?--ago.

  "Can you unstrap my arms?"

  The nurse looked up, said a brusque no, and went back to her book.

  I'm alive, thought Veronika. Everything's going to start all over again. I'll have to stay in here for a while, until they realize that I'm perfectly normal. Then they'll let me out, and I'll see the streets of Ljubljana again, its main square, the bridges, the people going to and from work.

  Since people always tend to help others--just so that they can feel they are better than they really are--they'll give me my job back at the library. In time I'll start frequenting the same bars and nightclubs, I'll talk to my friends about the injustices and problems of the world, I'll go to the movies, take walks around the lake.

  Since I only took sleeping pills, I'm not disfigured in any way: I'm still young, pretty, intelligent, I won't have any difficulty getting boyfriends, I never did. I'll make love with them in their houses or in the woods, I'll feel a certain degree of pleasure, but the moment I reach orgasm, the feeling of emptiness will return. We won't have much to talk about, and both he and I will know it. The time will come to make our excuses--"It's late," or "I have to get up early tomorrow"--and we'll part as quickly as possible, avoiding looking each other in the eye.

  I'll go back to my rented room in the convent. I'll try to read a book, turn on the TV to see the same old programs, set the alarm clock to wake up at exactly the same time I woke up the day before, and mechanically repeat my tasks at the library. I'll eat a sandwich in the park opposite the theater, sitting on the same bench, along with other people who also choose the same benches on which to sit and have their lunch, people who all have the same vacant look but pretend to be pondering extremely important matters.

  Then I'll go back to work; I'll listen to the gossip about who's going out with whom, who's suffering from what, how such and such a person was in tears about her husband, and I'll be left with the feeling that I'm privileged: I'm pretty, I have a job, I can have any boyfriend I choose. So I'll go back to the bars at the end of the day, and the whole thing will start again.

  My mother, who must be out of her mind with worry over my suicide attempt, will recover from the shock and will keep asking me what I'm going to do with my life, why I'm not the same as everyone else, things really aren't as complicated as I think they are. "Look at me, for example, I've been married to your father for years, and I've tried to give you the best possible upbringing and set you the best possible example."

  One day I'll get tired of hearing her constantly repeating the same things, and to please her I'll marry a man whom I oblige myself to love. He and I will end up finding a way of dreaming of a future together: a house in the country, children, our children's future. We'll make love often in the first year, less in the second, and after the third year, people perhaps think about sex only once every two weeks and transform that thought into action only once a month. Even worse, we'll barely talk. I'll force myself to accept the situation, and I'll wonder what's wrong with me, because he no longer takes any interest in me, ignores me, and does nothing but talk about his friends as if they were his real world.

  When the marriage is just about to fall apart, I'll get pregnant. We'll have a child, feel closer to each other for a while, and then the situation will go back to what it was before.

  I'll begin to put on weight like the aunt that nurse was talking about yesterday--or was it days ago? I don't really know. And I'll start to go on diets, systematically defeated each day, each week, by the weight that keeps creeping up regardless of the controls I put on it. At that point I'll take those magic pills that stop you from feeling depressed; then I'll have a few more children, conceived during nights of love that pass all too quickly. I'll tell everyone that the children are my reason for living, when in reality my life is their reason for living.

  People will always consider us a happy couple, and no one will know how much solitude, bitterness, and resignation lies beneath the surface happiness.

  Until one day, when my husband takes a lover for the first time, and I will perhaps kick up a fuss like the nurse's aunt or think again of killing myself. By then, though, I'll be too old and cowardly, with two or three children who need my help, and I'll have to bring them up and help them find a place in the world before I can just abandon everything. I won't commit suicide: I'll make a scene; I'll threaten to leave and take the children with me. Like all men, my husband will back down; he'll tell me he loves me and that it won't happen again. It won't even occur to him that, if I really did decide to leave, my only option would be to go back to my parents' house and stay there for the rest of my life, forced to listen to my mother going on and on all day about how I lost my one opportunity for being happy, that he was a wonderful husband despite his peccadilloes, that my children will be traumatized by the separation.

  Two or three years later, another woman will appear in his life. I'll find out--because I saw them or because someone told me--but this time I'll pretend I don't know. I used up all my energy fighting against that other lover; I've no energy left; it's best to accept life as it really is and not as I imagined it to be. My mother was right.

  He will continue being a considerate husband; I will continue working at the library, eating my sandwiches in the square opposite the theater, reading books I never quite manage to finish, watching television programs that are the same as they were ten, twenty, fifty years ago.

  Except that I'll eat my sandwiches with a sense of guilt because I'm getting fatter; and I won't go to bars anymore because I have a husband expecting me to come home and look after the children.

  After that it's a matter of waiting for the children to grow up and of spending all day thinking about suicide, without the courage to do anything about it. One fine day I'll reach the conclusion that that's what life is like: There's no point worrying about it; nothing will change. And I'll accept it.

  Veronika brought her interior monologue to a close and made a promise to herself: She would not leave Villete alive. It was best to put an end to everything now, while she was still brave and healthy enough to die.

  She fell asleep and woke up several times, noticing that the number of machines around her was diminishing, the warmth of her body was growing, and the nurses' faces kept changing; but there was always someone beside her. Through the green curtain she heard the sound of someone crying, groans, or voices whispering in calm, technical tones. From time to time, a distant machine would buzz and she would hear hurried footsteps along the corridor. Then the voices would lose their calm, technical tone and becom
e tense, issuing rapid orders.

  In one of her lucid moments, a nurse asked her: "Don't you want to know how you are?"

  "I already know," replied Veronika. "And it has nothing to do with what you can see happening in my body; it's what's happening in my soul."

  The nurse tried to continue the conversation, but Veronika pretended to be asleep.

  When Veronika opened her eyes again for the first time, she realized that she had been moved; she was in what looked like a large ward. She still had an IV drip in her arm, but all the other wires and needles had been removed.

  A TALL DOCTOR, wearing the traditional white coat, in sharp contrast to the artificial black of his dyed hair and beard, was standing at the foot of her bed. Beside him a young junior doctor holding a clipboard was taking notes.

  "How long have I been here?" she asked, noticing that she spoke with some difficulty, slurring her words slightly.

  "You've been in this ward for two weeks, after five days spent in the Intensive Care Unit," replied the older man. "And just be grateful that you're still here."

  The younger man seemed surprised, as if that final remark did not quite fit the facts. Veronika noticed his reaction at once, which alerted her instincts. Had she been here longer than she had thought? Was she still in some danger? She began to pay attention to each gesture, each movement the two men made; she knew it was pointless asking questions; they would never tell her the truth, but if she was clever, she could find out what was going on.

  "Tell me your name, address, marital status, and date of birth," the older man said. Veronika knew her name, her marital status, and her date of birth, but she realized that there were blanks in her memory: She couldn't quite remember her address.

  The doctor shone a light in her eyes and examined them for a long time, in silence. The young man did the same thing. They exchanged glances that meant absolutely nothing.