KURT PALKA was born and educated in Austria. He began his working life in Africa where he wrote for African Mirror and made wildlife films in Kenya and Tanzania. After moving to Canada he worked on international stories for CTV and GLOBAL TV, wrote for American and Canadian publications such as the Chronicle Herald and the Globe and Mail, and worked as a Senior Producer for the CBC. Clara (originally published in hardcover as Patient Number 7) is his fifth novel; it is a finalist for the Hammett Prize.
1. Does the fact that this novel is inspired by true events make any difference to your connection to the story? To the individual characters? Why or why not?
2. Very early in the novel, we read of the older Clara: “Writing had always saved her. It would do so again.” (p. 6) In what ways has writing “saved” Clara during different times of her life?
3. The Austrian experience of World War II, and the years preceding and following it, is not as well known in North America as the French, British, or German. Did reading Patient Number 7 give you any new information or insights into the social, political, and philosophical climate of this period of history?
4. Even though this novel takes place in some of the darkest days of WWII, Kurt Palka’s presentation of the characters’ decisions and their responses to events and to the affects those events have on their lives, is understated, even minimalist: he describes without arguing for either blame or exoneration. Why do you think the author takes this approach?
5. Although it is clear that Clara loves Albert very much, there are a moments in the relationship when she questions whether she should marry him or not. Why does she hesitate in these moments?
6. On pp 296-97, we read some lines that Clara has been trying to recall, from William Butler Yeats’ Purgatory:
They know at last the consequence of their transgressions,
either upon others or upon themselves.
If upon others, then others may bring help,
if upon themselves, there is no help but in themselves
and in the mercy of God.
What events bring on Clara’s memory and what is the relevance of the notion of “purgatory” to her at this point in her life?
7. During her university years, Clara is introduced to the idea of “As-ifness.” What do you understand by this unusual term? What role does the notion play in Clara’s life, and in the lives of other characters in Patient Number 7?
8. Many of Clara’s notes were written to pass on to her children and to those who she says might want to know how small fires ignored can become infernos. Yet she burns some of her notes at the end. Which notes do you think she burns, and why?
9. How does the novel’s epigraph, Abbé Ferdinando Galiani’s reminder to Mme. Louise d’Épinay that: “The important thing, Madame, is not to be cured, but to live with one’s ailments,” relate to Patient Number 7? There could be many levels at which the phrase resonates.
10. Think about the different ways that the major female characters are presented in the novel, in contrast to the male ones: is there a general difference that you can see? If so, what do you think Kurt Palka is saying in presenting his characters this way.
11. For much of Patient Number 7, there is a power struggle of some kind going on, more or less aggressively, as the backdrop to the characters’ lives: how does this fact inform the way key characters (Clara; Albert; Mitzi; Peter) choose to live, and to explain why they so choose?
12. The notion of deserving someone or something appears a few times, in very different contexts, in Patient Number 7. (See pp. 97, 215, and 360.) What does it mean to the various characters who talk or think about it? Is it a notion that resonates with you? Why or why not?