Review: ‘The Rabbi’s Cat 2’ by Joann Sfar
Joann Sfar, one of the major lights of the current European graphic novel scene, has written or collaborated on more than one hundred books, but probably his most famous and acclaimed work is the original [[[The Rabbi’s Cat]]], which won the prestigious Jury Prize at the Festival International de la BD d’Angouleme (Angouleme International Comics Festival).
Sadly, I still haven’t read it. Luckily, that means that I can review this sequel with an eye towards the new reader – since I was one myself.
The Rabbi’s Cat 2
By Joann Sfar
Pantheon, April 2008, $22.95
The title character is a nameless talking cat in Algiers in the 1930s, the pet of Rabbi Sfar – or perhaps of his beautiful, frustrated daughter Zlabya and her husband, a younger, urbane rabbi from Paris. I say “talking cat,” but most of the characters can’t tell that he talks – and it’s not clear what the difference is between those who can and those who can’t. (But the reader can always understand, which is the most important thing.) [[[The Rabbi’s Cat 2]]] collects what were the fourth and fifth French albums in the series, as the original Rabbi’s Cat collected the first three.
In the first story, “Heaven on Earth,” the cat is traveling with the rabbi’s cousin, Malka of the Lions, an itinerant storyteller and minor conman. (He uses his elderly, tame lion – which also speaks, of course – to impress various audiences and get money out of them.) There’s also a snake who follows them around, offering them the fatal “gift” of his bite, which they all keep politely, but firmly, rejecting.
The story wanders as Malka does, through the desert and to various settlements — and in and out of stories he tells about himself with a general message of tolerance. (Near the end, Malka shouts down the demagogic local mayor, Father Lambert, who is trying to stir up hatred toward the Jews for his own purposes.)
But, on the last few pages, after the cat and his friends have returned to Algiers, Rabbi Sfar counsels his students never to resist attackers or train for war, since everyone else will always be stronger. (In context, I think he means that Jews will never have a chance, but what he actually says is more fatalistic than that, as if anyone who tries to defend himself will inevitably be killed.) Now, the rabbi is a character, and I won’t say he’s speaking for the author, but, being a Jew in the 1930s, that philosophy has great historical resonance — even if he lives in Algiers, not Berlin.
So Sfar is clearly making an argument for tolerance earlier — and who, these days, makes the opposite argument? — but it’s not as clear if he’s taking a position on the existence of Israel or about the proper reaction to attempted genocide. But it is an odd tone to take at the end of a story about tolerance and living life to the fullest.
The second story is “[[[Africa’s Jerusalem]]],” in which a Russian Jew – whose name we also never learn – turns up in Algiers, after having crated himself up in a shipment of Torahs and Talmuds that he thought was going to Addis Ababa. He lives with Rabbi Sfar for some time, despite the painter and the locals having no language in common. (The cat can understand him, but no one but the painter can understand the cat.)
Eventually, Rabbi Sfar tracks down an eccentric local, the rich old Russian émigré Vastenov, and Vastenov translates for the painter a bit. One thing leads to another, and soon Vastenov, the painter, Rabbi Sfar, and the latter’s cousin Sheik Mohammad Sfar set out to find a country of African Jews called Jerusalem, which the painter swears exists.
Their first major adventure is a calamity all the way around: first the cat is nearly killed by a scorpion, then the hospitality of a nameless Muslim prince turns out to be less than anticipated. But the survivors press on.
Eventually, the still-nameless painter meets and falls in love with an equally nameless black waitress, and she joins their expedition. Do they find Jerusalem? I couldn’t possibly reveal that…
This second story is even more didactic than the first, full of speeches about religion and the differences (or similarities) of people of different skin colors. Sfar handles it well, but it does come off a bit like a sermon. I enjoyed The Rabbi’s Cat 2, but there is a definite air of spinach about it, which I generally prefer to avoid in my pleasure reading. But the ending is sweet, mostly focusing on the love story, which is a better way of making the moral stick than through long speeches.
Sfar’s art here is very detailed but loose, with lines just on the verge of haphazard. He also generally keeps to a six-panel grid, with lots of dialogue and some narration from the cat. There’s some nudity, so this isn’t for little kids — though they’d probably get bored with it long before they hit the nudity, anyway.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.
Sfar is amazingly prolific. He's had four different books reviewed on ComicMix in the last two months. Two in the last two days! That's quite a streak!http://www.comicmix.com/news/2008/05/21/dungeon-m…http://www.comicmix.com/news/2008/04/08/review-li…http://www.comicmix.com/news/2008/04/03/review-fo…
What a wonerful book! I'm surprised that is is not more widely read in the U.S. In any case, it gives us insight into another very diferent time and place through the eyes of a marvelous animal!!