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Veronika Decides to Die, Paulo Coelho

Legacy is much talked about in both personal development and IT circles — two communities I frequent. So, when I stumbled across the legacy of the QWERTY keyboard in a Paulo Coelho book as an analogy for the way some people live their lives I had to smile. Legacy is not the only theme relevant to personal development that Coelho explores through this work though: conformity versus madness and the value of truth are given due consideration too. This intensely moving and uplifting book is a tight, poetic song of life. Its central message speaks to the head, the heart and the soul and is one worth absorbing in today’s environment.

“Do not decide to die. Seize the day.”

***

Had you, like me, thought that the QWERTY keyboard was the result of meticulous human planning and decision making; an arrangement of the sounds of the alphabet in such a way as to make typing as fast as possible? Had you, like me, assumed that in the same way our children now learn phonics to allow them to build sounds and words quickly and get quick wins, so had the keyboard been developed?

In truth, the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow typing down! Previous models led to the keys jamming easily when used at speed, so to solve this problem some bright spark (one James Densmore actually, a business associate of Christopher Latham Sholes and his colleagues, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soulé, who invented the first practical typewriting machine in 1866) suggested splitting up keys for letters commonly used together to slow down typing.

“Slowing you down.” Not quite the legacy today’s innovators aim for (except perhaps for Carl Honore) although sometimes slowing down in the short term can lead to speeding up in the longer term.

Legacy, and the need to slow down in order to speed up are just two sub themes explored by Coelho in this novel which follows the story of the beautiful, young, clever and talented Veronika, who, in spite of these attributes, a steady stream of boyfriends and a loving family, decides to die. Having taken what she had believed was a fatal dose of sleeping tablets, Veronika awakes to find herself in Villette, the “famous and much-feared lunatic asylum” of her native and little known country, Slovenia. Being told that she has damaged her heart irreparably and has just a few days to live, Veronika finds herself playing a weird yet wonderful waiting game where she feels that she is in, but not of, this world.

Veronika does not die of course, for it is not true; she has not done irreparable damage to her heart. By telling her this is so though, the eminent psychiatrist Dr Ivor is able to further his research on “vitriol”, a hormone which he believes is released when people are continuously confronted with fear to leave a taste of bitterness, a taste which if untreated, can go on to cause madness.

Coelho’s question is not new (“who or what is mad?”). Neither is his answer, if you wish to interpret the course of the story as an answer (“either none of us or all of us”). What is new is the depth and warmth which is brought to the work via his, frankly, chilling responses. Light and shade, pitch and pace, he uses them all.

“Everyone has an unusual story to tell” is the starting-point of the new treatment initiated at Villette by the enigmatic Dr Igor. Through telling a story, known to be untrue, of the destiny of this new young arrival in his care, not only does he allow her to see as if for the first time, he also allows the other patients and carers in this “neighbourhood” to view things differently too (enter another theme: truthfulness and its real value).

“Everyone has a story to tell,” it is true. It’s the way that Coelho tells them though which catalyses changes within both his characters and his readers. Forced to understand that every second of existence is a choice, Veronika is moved to perform in ways she had never before dared, she finds the courage to experience what life could have offered her, only to learn that it still can. In today’s environment it is more important than ever to remember not to decide to die. It’s far better to “seize the day”.

 

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