Kurt Palka: Patient Number 7

A free fall into the life of a woman who is strong willed and yet from the other side of history we, as the reader, feel the heartbreak of her life in Austria under budding Nazi rule – so often I found myself whispering “no.. no..” as my children curled around, safe in sleep. The vandalism and deaths she sees are part of the overwhelming violence in the city. So often I wanted to reach through the pages and shake this woman caught in her own idealism, to point at the death of a Jewish couple killed under suspicious circumstances and shake her until she could see reality, to connect the random dots for her. This is the luxury of living 60 years after these events and throughout Kurt Palka’s mesmerizing novel I was reminded of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, the imprecise memory allowed to German citizens following the atrocities of World War II.

The main protagonist, Clara Herzog, is the type of strong-willed woman I would like to be if life ever came crashing down around me, her willful disobedience while she is at once entrenched in the machinery of the regime and yet she doesn’t seem to know why she does the things she does, only that she must. The wife of a German cavalry officer, she finds a way to hold salons with the prisoners of war in her basement and feed them stolen fruit while an SS officer patrols her living room.

In some ways Clara answers the question of how the horrors of the Nazi regime could happen, how could every day Germans allow the atrocities to occur in front of them? Clara is an intelligent woman with a proud heritage and yet she is inexplicably drawn to the Nazi political party in the beginning. This underground group of misguided youth and idealists attempting to find their way in the world, they offer a place for women in the party and it is for this reason that Clara flirts with the idea of joining their ranks. It is with a sigh of relief that she does not, her own intelligence unassailable against the undercurrent of antisemitism – a Jewish friend accompanies her to a party meeting and admonishes Clara that in Germany the antisemitism is much more visible but she cannot quite believe that a party that sends a female representative could also speak hate.

There is violence in Patient Number 7. In fact, there is one scene in which Clara is the perpetrator of the bloodiness but it is just and rest assured, he had it coming. The violence is not gory, it is unsettling in that it is often senseless – the deaths meted out are as banal as the Nazi’s own racism.

The story is told from the Austrian viewpoint, and Palka captures the fear the Austrians lived in, the white-faced panic of watching their country capitulate under the ferocious might of a megalomaniac. What is most remarkable is that the story is woven from family lore and a long mythologized folder of missives from the most turbulent time in recent memory. I would easily recommend this book, Clara Herzog is a real woman of character and strength. Palka, with his dotted references to Freud and Heiddeger makes me want to revisit these giants of psychology and philosophy.

Patient Number 7 was published March 27, 2012 and is available through McClelland and Stewart (check your local bookstore). Thank you to Netgalley for providing this engaging galley.

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