Review: The Rabbi’s Cat
In my misspent youth I took French lessons and am able to get through Paris without causing International Incidents. My reading skills in French are better than my ability to speak it, and that’s okay: I like to think you get into less trouble with an open book than an open mouth. Little Did I Know.
So I’ve got this friend, brilliant fellow-writer Nalo Hopkinson, and one day she asked me if I could read French. Why yes; yes, I can, I replied. And I was thereupon treated to that rare phenomenon, the ability to hear via e-mail someone rubbing their hands together in fiendish glee and chortling “Mwahaha!” Soon after that, the mail brought to my innocent hands a French graphic novel called [[[Le Chat Du Rabin]]], aka The Rabbi’s Cat. It was written by marvelously prolific French writer-artist Joan Sfar, and let’s get one thing out of the way now, FWIW: Joan is a man. It happens.
The Rabbi’s Cat is set in 1930s French North Africa. I’m being typically lazy as I write this, which is why I’m fudging on exactly where in French North Africa. Morocco, I think. (Mmmmm, fudge!) The protagonist is—see if you can guess. . .YES! Right in one!—the rabbi’s cat. He looks to be related to the Sphinx breed and he dwells with the rabbi and the rabbi’s beautiful daughter.
There is also a parrot. It is a very loud and talkative parrot. It is an obnoxious parrot. It is a highly inconvenient parrot and so, cat’s being cats, soon it is an EX-parrot! (Oh, how I’ve wanted to say that!)
And under the enchanting rules of Sfar’s fiction, in a miraculous moment, because he has eaten a talking parrot, the rabbi’s cat can now talk!
Did I mention that this was only the first book in a series? ‘Tis. And so the full title of same is The Rabbi’s Cat: The Bar Mitzvah. Because, you see, the cat talks, but the rabbi has problems with much of what the cat has to say. He’s especially concerned about the bad influence these unbridled observations (and often outright lies) will have on his adored daughter. He separates the cat from his daughter, but the cat likewise adores his mistress and is willing to do anything necessary to regain her company. The rabbi feels that all might be well if he helps the cat to take the right path, morally and ethically speaking, according to the teachings of Judaism. And the cat, quite reasonably, says that if he’s going to learn Judaism, he wants to have a bar mitzvah.
Les hijinques ensue, but not in the zany, slapstick way you might imagine. No, The Rabbi’s Cat is that perilous sort of graphic novel, the sort that makes you think, question, and perhaps gain some measure of enlightenment. It’s about faith, religion, love, hate, devotion, and is enriched with a beautiful sense of humanity and compassion. It also reminds you just how much unthinking hate this world has known.
There are no simple resolutions. There are no easy answers. It’s all worth it.
And the cat… is a cat. A real cat, and not some human in a cat suit. Joan Sfar understands cats. For that alone, he merits admiration and praise.
The bad news for me, upon finishing [[[Le Chat du Rabin: Le Bar Mitzvah]]], was that I had to go order the next two books because, face it, there aren’t a lot of bookstores in my neck of the woods that sell French graphic novels. And when they do, it’s usually Asterix (which I also love, but that’s another story). Thus Nalo’s untyped-but-still-there e-mail “Mwahaha!” O vile temptress! I succeeded in getting books two and three, but then saw a fourth book in the works and nowhere online to order it. Aaaaaiiiiieeeeee!
So I went to Paris and got it. And before you act all more-frugal-than-thou at me, I had to go to Paris for family-related reasons, so fermez le trou de tarte, voyons donc! (I think that’s how you request the shutting of the pie-hole in French. Je ne sais pas.) Not only that, it wasn’t all that easy to find it in Paris! That ought to give you some idea of how good this series is if it could get someone as lazy as I to scour a city for it.
Now here’s the good news for you: You don’t have to be able to read French to enjoy The Rabbi’s Cat. There are two omnibus editions in excellent English translation available. I defer to someone less lazy than I to provide the details about them. (Editor’s Note: what do you think all these links are for, lady?) I’m saving my energy for jumping up and down, insisting you read them, read them, read them! Because the adventures of the rabbi’s cat travel farther afield than Morocco. They encompass Paris, both highlife and low, they travel into the heart of Africa, seeking a lost city, and above all, they enter the entrancing maze of the heart.
Oh, and to answer the question I posed as a subtitle to this: Non, on ne peut pas avoir du burger au fromage. Ce n’est pas kachère! Kthxaurevoir.
Esther Friesner is the world’s leading Practitioner of Cheeblemancy. Her latest book, Nobody’s Princess, is in stores now.