Yet, in the middle of Europe, a journalist on an important magazine felt no shame at asking such a question, because he knew that most of his readers would not know where Slovenia was, still less its capital, Ljubljana.
VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE
A NOVEL OF REDEMPTION
TRANSLATED FROM THE PORTUGUESE BY MARGARET JULL COSTA
For S. T. de L., who began to help me without my realizing it
Behold I give unto you power to tread on serpents...and nothing shall by any means hurt you.
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On November 11, 1997, Veronika decided that the moment to kill herself had--at last!--arrived. She carefully cleaned the room that she rented in a convent, turned off the heat, brushed her teeth, and lay down.
SHE PICKED up the four packs of sleeping pills from her bedside table. Instead of crushing them and mixing them with water, she decided to take them one by one, because there is always a gap between intention and action, and she wanted to feel free to turn back halfway. With each pill she swallowed, however, she felt more convinced: After five minutes the packs were empty.
Since she didn't know exactly how long it would take her to lose consciousness, she had placed on the bed that month's issue of a French magazine, Homme, which had just arrived in the library where she worked. She had no particular interest in computer science, but, as she leafed through the magazine, she came across an article about a computer game (one of those CD-ROMS) created by Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian writer she had happened to meet at a lecture in the cafe at the Grand Union Hotel. They had exchanged a few words, and she had ended up being invited by his publisher to join them for supper. There were a lot of people there, though, and they hadn't had a chance to talk in depth about anything.
The fact that she had met the author led her to think that he was part of her world, and that reading an article about his work could help pass the time. While she was waiting for death, Veronika started reading about computer science, a subject in which she was not the least bit interested, but then that was in keeping with what she had done all her life, always looking for the easy option, for whatever was nearest at hand. Like that magazine, for example.
To her surprise, though, the first line of text shook her out of her natural passivity (the tranquilizers had not yet dissolved in her stomach, but Veronika was by nature passive), and, for the first time in her life, it made her ponder the truth of a saying that was very fashionable among her friends: "Nothing in this world happens by chance."
Why that first line, at precisely the moment when she had begun to die? What was the hidden message she saw before her, assuming there are such things as hidden messages rather than mere coincidences?
Underneath an illustration of the computer game, the journalist began his article by asking: "Where is Slovenia?"
Honestly, she thought, no one ever knows where Slovenia is.
But Slovenia existed nonetheless, and it was outside, inside, in the mountains around her and in the square she was looking out at: Slovenia was her country.
She put the magazine to one side; there was no point now in getting indignant with a world that knew absolutely nothing about the Slovenes; her nation's honor no longer concerned her. It was time to feel proud of herself, to recognize that she had been able to do this, that she had finally had the courage and was leaving this life: What joy! Also she was doing it as she had always dreamed she would--by taking sleeping pills, which leave no mark.
Veronika had been trying to get hold of the pills for nearly six months. Thinking that she would never manage it, she had even considered slashing her wrists. It didn't matter that the room would end up awash in blood, and the nuns would be left feeling confused and troubled, for suicide demands that people think of themselves first and of others later. She was prepared to do all she could so that her death would cause as little upset as possible, but if slashing her wrists was the only way, then she had no option--and the nuns could clean up the room and quickly forget the whole story, otherwise they would find it hard to rent out the room again. We may live at the end of the twentieth century, but people still believe in ghosts.
Obviously she could have thrown herself off one of the few tall buildings in Ljubljana, but what about the further suffering a fall from such a height would cause her parents? Apart from the shock of learning that their daughter had died, they would also have to identify a disfigured corpse; no, that was a worse solution than bleeding to death, because it would leave indelible marks on two people who only wanted the best for her.
They would get used to their daughter's death eventually. But it must be impossible to forget a shattered skull.
Shooting, jumping off a high building, hanging, none of these options suited her feminine nature. Women, when they kill themselves, choose far more romantic methods--like slashing their wrists or taking an overdose of sleeping pills. Abandoned princesses and Hollywood actresses have provided numerous examples of this.
Veronika knew that life was always a matter of waiting for the right moment to act. And so it proved to be the case. In response to her complaints that she could no longer sleep at night, two friends of hers managed to get hold of two packs each of a powerful drug, used by musicians at a local nightclub. Veronika left the four packs on her bedside table for a week, courting approaching death and saying good-bye--entirely unsentimentally--to what people called life.
Now she was there, glad she had gone all the way, and bored because she didn't know what to do with the little time that was left to her.
She thought again about the absurd question she had just read. How could an article about computers begin with such an idiotic opening line: "Where is Slovenia?"
Having nothing more interesting to do, she decided to read the whole article, and she learned that the said computer game had been made in Slovenia--that strange country that no one seemed quite able to place, except the people who lived there--because it was a cheap source of labor. A few months before, when the product was launched, the French manufacturer had given a party for journalists from all over the world in a castle in Vled.
Veronika remembered reading something about the party, which had been quite an event in the city, not just because the castle had been redecorated in order to match as closely as possible the medieval atmosphere of the CD-ROM, but because of the controversy in the local press: Journalists from Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Spain had been invited, but not a single Slovene.
Homme's correspondent--who was visiting Slovenia for the first time, doubtless with all expenses paid, and determined to spend his visit talking to other journalists, making supposedly interesting comments and enjoying the free food and drink at the castle--had decided to begin his article with a joke that must have appealed to the sophisticated intellectuals of his country. He had probably told his fellow journalists on the magazine various untrue stories about local customs, too, and said how badly Slovene women dress.
That was his problem. Veronika was dying, and she had other concerns, such as wondering if there was life after death, or when her body would be found. Nevertheless--or perhaps precisely because of the important decision she had taken--the article bothered her.
She looked out of the convent window that gave on to the small square in Ljubljana. If they don't know where Slovenia is, then Ljubljana must be a myth, she thought. Like Atlantis or Lemuria, or the other lost continents that fill men's imaginations. No one, anywhere in the world, would begin an article asking where Mount Everest was, even if they had never been there.
It was then that Veronika found a way of passing the time, now that ten minutes had gone by and she had still not noticed any physical changes. The final act of her life would be to write a letter to the magazine, explaining that Slovenia was one of the five republics into which the former Yugoslavia had been divided.
The letter would be her suicide note. She would give no explanation of the real reasons for her death.
When they find her body, they will conclude that she had killed herself because a magazine did not know where her country was. She laughed to think of the controversy in the newspapers, with some for and some against her suicide, committed in honor of her country's cause. And she was shocked by how quickly she could change her mind, since only moments before she had thought exactly the opposite--that the world and other geographical problems were no longer her concern.
She wrote the letter. That moment of good humor almost made her have second thoughts about the need to die, but she had already taken the pills; it was too late to turn back.
Anyway, she had had such moments before, and besides, she was not killing herself because she was a sad, embittered woman, constantly depressed. She had spent many afternoons walking joyfully along the streets of Ljubljana or gazing--from the window in her convent room--at the snow falling on the small square with its statue of the poet. Once, for almost a month, she had felt as if she were walking on air, all because a complete stranger, in the middle of that very square, had given her a flower.
She believed herself to be completely normal. Two very simple reasons lay behind her decision to die, and she was sure that, were she to leave a note explaining, many people would agree with her.
The first reason: Everything in her life was the same and, once her youth was gone, it would be downhill all the way, with old age beginning to leave irreversible marks, the onset of illness, the departure of friends. She would gain nothing by continuing to live; indeed, the likelihood of suffering would only increase.
The second reason was more philosophical: Veronika read the newspapers, watched TV, and she was aware of what was going on in the world. Everything was wrong, and she had no way of putting things right--that gave her a sense of complete powerlessness.
In a short while, though, she would have the final experience of her life, which promised to be very different: death. She wrote the letter to the magazine, then abandoned the topic and concentrated on more pressing matters, more appropriate to what she was living, or rather, dying, through at that moment.
She tried to imagine what it would be like to die but failed to reach any conclusion.
Besides, there was no point worrying about that, for in a few moments she would find out.
How many minutes?
She had no idea. But she relished the thought that she was about to find out the answer to the question that everyone asked themselves: Does God exist?
Unlike many people, this had not been the great inner debate of her life. Under the old Communist regime, the official line in schools had been that life ended with death, and she had gotten used to the idea. On the other hand, her parents' generation and her grandparents' generation still went to church, said prayers, and went on pilgrimages, and were utterly convinced that God listened to what they said.
At twenty-four, having experienced everything she could experience--and that was no small achievement--Veronika was almost certain that everything ended with death. That is why she had chosen suicide: freedom at last. Eternal oblivion.
In her heart of hearts, though, there was still a doubt: What if God did exist? Thousands of years of civilization had made of suicide a taboo, an affront to all religious codes: Man struggles to survive, not to succumb. The human race must procreate. Society needs workers. A couple has to have a reason to stay together, even when love has ceased to exist, and a country needs soldiers, politicians and artists.
If God exists, and I truly don't believe he does, he will know that there are limits to human understanding. He was the one who created this confusion in which there is poverty, injustice, greed, and loneliness. He doubtless had the best of intentions, but the results have proved disastrous; if God exists, he will be generous with those creatures who chose to leave this Earth early, and he might even apologize for having made us spend time here.
To hell with taboos and superstitions. Her devout mother would say: "God knows the past, the present, and the future." In that case, he had placed her in this world in the full knowledge that she would end up killing herself, and he would not be shocked by her actions.
Veronika began to feel a slight nausea, which became rapidly more intense.
In a few moments, she would no longer be able to concentrate on the square outside her window. She knew it was winter; it must have been about four o'clock in the afternoon, and the sun was setting fast. She knew that other people would go on living. At that moment a young man passed her window and saw her, utterly unaware that she was about to die. A group of Bolivian musicians (where is Bolivia? why don't magazine articles ask that?) was playing in front of the statue of France Preseren, the great Slovenian poet, who had made such a profound impact on the soul of his people.
Would she live to hear the end of that music drifting up from the square? It would be a beautiful memory of this life: the late afternoon, a melody recounting the dreams of a country on the other side of the world, the warm cozy room, the handsome young man passing by, full of life, who had decided to stop and was now standing looking up at her. She realized that the pills were beginning to take effect and that he was the last person who would see her.
He smiled. She returned his smile--she had nothing to lose. He waved; she decided to pretend she was looking at something else; the young man was going too far. Disconcerted, he continued on his way, forgetting that face at the window forever.
But Veronika was glad to have felt desired by somebody one last time. She wasn't killing herself because of a lack of love. It wasn't because she felt unloved by her family or had money problems or an incurable disease.
Veronika had decided to die on that lovely Ljubljana afternoon, with Bolivian musicians playing in the square, with a young man passing by her window, and she was happy with what her eyes could see and her ears could hear. She was even happier that she would not have to go on seeing those same things for another thirty, forty, or fifty years, because they would lose all their originality and be transformed into the tragedy of a life in which everything repeats itself and where one day is exactly like another.
Her stomach was beginning to churn now, and she was feeling very ill indeed. It's odd, she thought. I thought an overdose of tranquilizers should have sent 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 afterward, 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.
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 to," 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 an attempt 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 Villete."
Despite the pain and the choking feeling, Veronika realized 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 Villete.
Villete, 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 the old barracks, abandoned because of high maintenance costs.
Shortly afterward, 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 that were far from commendable in a psychiatric hospital, and for the young nation that had just emerged from a benign communism, Villete came to symbolize all the worst aspects of capitalism: To be admitted to the hospital, all you needed was money.