Authors: Paulo Coelho
Tags: #Fiction, #General
Her stomach was beginning to churn now and she was feeling very ill indeed. ‘It’s odd, I thought an overdose of tranquillizers would send me straight to sleep.’ What she was experiencing, though, was a strange buzzing in her ears and a desire to vomit.
‘If I throw up, I won’t die.’
She decided not to think about the stabbing pains in her stomach and tried to concentrate on the rapidly falling night, on the Bolivians, on the people who were starting to shut up their shops and go home. The noise in her ears was becoming more and more strident and, for the first time since she had taken the pills, Veronika felt fear, a terrible fear of the unknown.
It did not last long. Soon afterwards, she lost consciousness.When she opened her eyes, Veronika did not think ‘this must be heaven’. Heaven would never use a fluorescent tube to light a room, and the pain—which started a fraction of a second later—was typical of the Earth. Ah, that Earth pain—unique, unmistakable.Error! Reference source not found.
She tried to move and the pain increased. A series of bright dots appeared, but, even so,Veronika knew that those dots were not the stars of Paradise, but the consequences of the intense pain she was feeling.
‘She's coming round,’ she heard a woman say. ‘You've landed slap bang in hell, so you’d better make the most of it.’
No, it couldn't be true, that voice was deceiving her. It wasn't hell, because she felt really cold and she was aware of plastic tubes coming out of her nose and mouth. One of the tubes—the one stuck down her throat—made her feel as if she were choking.
She made as if to remove it, but her arms were strapped down.
‘I'm joking, it's not really hell,’ the voice went on. ‘It's worse than hell, not that I’ve ever actually been there. You’re in Villette.’
Despite the pain and the feeling of choking, Veronika realised at once what had happened. She had tried to kill herself and someone had arrived in time to save her. It could have been one of the nuns, a friend who had decided to drop by unannounced, someone delivering something she had forgotten she had ordered. The fact is, she had survived, and she was in Villette.
Villette, the famous and much-feared lunatic asylum, which had been in existence since 1991, the year of the country's independence. At that time, believing that the partitioning of the former Yugoslavia would be achieved through peaceful means (after all, Slovenia had only experienced eleven days of war), a group of European businessmen had obtained permission to set up a hospital for mental patients in an old barracks, abandoned because of high maintenance costs.
Shortly afterwards, however, the wars commenced: first in Croatia, then in Bosnia. The businessmen were worried. The money for the investment came from capitalists scattered all round the globe, from people whose names they didn't even know, so there was no possibility of sitting down in front of them, offering a few excuses and asking them to be patient.They resolved the problem by adopting practices which were far from commendable in a psychiatric hospital, and for the young nation that had just emerged from a benign communism, Villette came to symbolise all the worst aspects of capitalism: to be admitted to the hospital, all you needed was money.
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 behaviour), were willing to pay large sums of money to obtain a medical report that would allow the internment of their problematic 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.
Villette was the place from which no one had ever escaped, where genuine madmen—sent there by the courts or by other hospitals—mingled with those merely accused of madness or those pretending to be mad. The result was utter confusion, and the press were constantly publishing tales of ill-treatment and abuse, although they had never been given permission to visit Villette and actually see what was 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 to even leave her room, eating, getting fat, smoking, taking tranquillisers and sleeping most of the time. She had two daughters and a husband who loved her.’
Veronika tried to move her head in the direction of the voice, but failed.
‘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 neighbourhood 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 tranquillisers 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 answerphone, saying goodbye, 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, her freely 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 for 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 afterwards, 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 Villette.
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 mad woman,’ 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 part.
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 of asylum is something any civilised 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 admitted into 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 admitted into hospital was something which, even today, he found odd;
perhaps his parents were confused by his unusual behaviour, half-shy, half-extrovert, and by his desire to be an ‘artist’, something that everyone in the family considered a perfect recipe for ending up as a social outcast and dying in poverty.
When he 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 admit 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 took 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 neighbouring country of Argentina), Paulo Coelho shared with Veronika the fact just mentioned, but which is worth restating: he too had been admitted into 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 of the lungs (even though he'd never smoked) and despite living entirely off frozen food because he couldn't get a housekeeper who could put up with his eccentricities.
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-giving 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 an 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 area 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 realise 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 cinema, 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 in 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.