Thursday, August 25, 2005


The Rabbi's Cat is a graphic novel collecting three of Joann Sfar's previously published stories featuring, well, a rabbi's cat. It's a meditation on faith, family, and the art of truthtelling. And, for the most part, it is fantastic.

The rabbi and his cat live in 1930's Algeria, which was still under French dominion and had a different religious and ethnic demographic than it does today. While many of the themes are independent of confession, religion is the underpinning of this story, the core around which everything else revolves, and your personal feelings on faith, whatever flavor it is, will color how you read the stories. Especially the last chapter, "Exodus".

The rabbi's cat (who does not get named) is a wondrous creature. Not because he can speak, but because he is so intellectually complicated in a fashion that never turns him from a feline into a person in cat form. The cat is alternately stubborn, loyal, jealous, petty, and generous. He is intelligent without always being wise and sometimes he is wise enough to rue his intelligence. What else can you expect from a cat that starts to speak after eating the rabbi's annoying parakeet, but his first words are lies about eating the parakeet?

The first chapter, "The Bar Mitzvah" is probably my favorite. It is where the cat begins to speak, but it is also where the cat begins to learn to see beyond himself. That self-absorption is both material -- like all cats, he wants what he wants when he wants it -- and spiritual. The cat wants a bar mitzvah so he can learn kabbalah and also be trusted to be alone with the rabbi's beautiful daughter Zlabya, but he does not want to have to expend any energy. He wants knowledge without either understanding or commitment. What results is a battle of wills between the cat (the secular skeptic) and the rabbi (the believer) and both emerge the wiser.

The second chapter, "Malka of the Lions", still deals with faith, but more on culture and family. There is the resentment of the French overlords, the influence of ancient stories, the easy ecumenicism of differing believers, and the conflict between different Jewish traditions. There is also the binding and loosing of family ties and it flows together wonderfully. The cat is more witness than actor, but is still a player in the story.

The third chapter, "Exodus", lost me a little. The easy back-and-forth conversation between secularism and faith is totally disrupted and the relaxed tone of a storyteller is gone. Suddenly, everyone is feckless and faithless. Sfar is going for a play on culture shock -- this chapter takes place in Paris -- and ends up with something quite mean and sad to read. Everyone is lost -- morally, spiritually, geographically, emotionally. There is no moral compass and no life preservers in sight. Even the cat, who is usually quite refreshingly honest, is very confused. The end does not bring hope, but instead a sort of weak soldiering on where most everyone goes back to doing what they were doing because they can't untrack to pursue other options. I found this last chapter a disappointment after the delight of the first two.

Sfar's art is not comic book art. (Go here to look around; this is the book's minisite). It is European in style and composition and is striking and warm without necessarily being pretty.

The book on the whole is quite lovely and highly recommended whatever the status of your beliefs (or lack thereof).


Blogger Yasmine Claire said...

I loved the book.also read Vampire Loves by Joann Sfar! lovely!

Mon Nov 27, 11:29:00 PM EST  

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