Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Rabbi's Cat

So, while on San Juan Island back in September, I saw an interesting-looking graphic novel in a bookshop called THE RABBI'S CAT but didn't buy it because the art was so ugly. But the premise was interesting enough that I remembered it and thought I'd track it down later. My first attempt through the King County Library System was a failure, for reasons I'm not quite sure of, but my second a few weeks ago (this time preceded by an online search to find the author/artist's name) succeeded. To my surprise, I found out that the same author, Joann Sfar, had done another interesting-looking graphic novel that'd caught my eye in the local Barnes & Noble a while back and also that there was a sequel to his other book (THE RABBI'S CAT 2). So, I put in requests at the library for all three.

I've now read them all, and they're well worth checking out. The set-up for THE RABBI'S CAT is better than the pay-off, and the art is indeed hideously ugly throughout, but if you're a cat-owner, after reading it you may find yourself treating your fine feline friend just a little better, in hopes that, if he or she cd talk, your cat'd express a higher opinion of you.

The story features a rabbi living in Algeria early in the twentieth century (my guess would be sometime in the 1920s), his daughter, and their cat. One day the rabbi comes home, finds their parrot missing, and discovers that his cat has learned how to talk; it tells him the parrot had to go away suddenly and they're not to wait up for him. The rabbit rushes to his daughter and says, my cat has learned how to talk -- but he lies! The rest of the story pretty much follows from there: the rabbi's attempts to find out if his cat is a Jewish cat, the cat's occasionally caustic observations, and a time-capsule look at a lost way of life. Among the highlights, two in particular stand out.

The first comes when the rabbi visits Paris and winds up wandering the streets in the rain, unable to even ring a doorbell to find a place to stay or carry his faithful cat because that would violate the Sabbath. Eventually he snaps and goes to a restaurant, where he orders "the least kosher meal in the universe": ham with milk, blood sausage and live oysters, snails and seafood and "a good wine named after a church or a Virgin Mary". Then, before eating, he asks God to "Tell me not to do it. Tell me I've deprived myself of these foods for sixty years and that it served some kind of purpose . . . Tell me that when my wife died it was your will and it was a part of your design . . . " Nothing. So he eats "Just this once . . . Lord. Tomorrow I'll go back to fearing you". And he does.

The second comes near the end of the second book where someone who's fled a Jewish community in Bolshevik Russia goes with his African wife and the cat seeking a Black Jerusalem somewhere beyond Ethiopia. After many adventures they find the city, only to be indignantly rejected by the inhabitants, who refuse to believe that there could be such a thing as someone who's both white and Jewish at the same time. In the end the three of them decide not to tell anyone about what they've found: as the Russian, who's a painter, says "Telling things like they are is not my job". Given that this is the last line in the book, one assumes Sfar would agree.

There are also two nice minor scenes, one in each book. The first comes when Rabbi Sfar* makes a visit to the gravesite of an illustrious ancestor, on the way there running into an old travelling singer named Sheikh Muhammad Sfar, apparently a cousin, who is also on his way to visit the grave. But en route the rabbi's cat and the sheikh's donkey get into a terrible argument over whether the person whose grave they're going to see is "a rabbi" (as the cat says) or "a great Sufi, a saint" (as the donkey maintains).

The second comes in the second volume, when in crossing the Belgium Congo the party of travellers come across Tintin** -- who's not named but who is nonetheless unmistakable, right down to his little dog (dismissed by the cat as "a moron"). Rather surprisingly, though, Sfar's portrayal of Tintin is entirely negative": this "young reporter who seems very sure of himself" never stops talking, shoots everything in sight, and treats the rabbi, sheikh, and painter as if "he [thought] we're retarded". I didn't realize you were allowed to dislike Tintin if you were French-speaking. Good to know.

In addition to the two volumes about the Rabbi's Cat, the third graphic novel, THE PROFESSOR'S DAUGHTER, was actually the best of the lot. For one thing, the art is far better; turns out this one was written by Sfar but drawn by someone else (Emmanuel Guibert). It's the story of how one day the Professor's lovely and independent daughter takes a mummy, Imhotep IV, out of his display case and out to tea. Events quickly spiral out of control, as the hapless Imhotep falls in love with her despite many obstacles (not least of which is his having been dead for 3200 years). It's a strange yet moving story; even Queen Victoria makes an appearance (in her most pig-headed 'we-are-not-amused' mode). I think my favorite moment was when Imhotep dreams of his long-dead children in a scene that strongly reminded me of Ray Bradbury, who used a similar motif in one of his Martian Chronicles ("Where we are, the Nile still teems with fish and you're still king"). Recommended!

--John R.

*yes, the author/artist does give his own name to the characters.

**presumably during the adventures recorded in Tintin's second book, TINTIN IN THE CONGO [1930-31].


David Bratman said...

I've read the first of these, and it is indeed a well-told and worthwhile story.

The scene with "the least kosher meal in the universe" reminds me of one of my favorite jokes, but I'll have to tell you that some other time.

Julien Meneldur said...

Joann Sfar is a great author, indeed. His art may not be conventional, but his stories are almost always worth the effort. You should absolutely check the "Donjon" series (dunno if there exists an English translation), Sfar and Lewis Trondheim's take on fantasy, be it slashing, Renaissance-like fantasy ("Potron-Minet"), basic sword and sorcery ("Zénith") or creepy apocalyptic dark fantasy ("Crépuscule"). All of this set into the same world, in a gigantic frame which is planned to last in the end for two hundred books! (More, in fact, since there's also numerous spin-offs.)

For Tintin's treatment in "The Rabbi's Cat", I guess it has to do with Hergé's racist depictment of Congo in "Tintin au Congo", like making black people talk in broken French. Later, Hergé expressed regrets about this stereotypical view, and he tried to tone it down when he redrew the story in 1946, but it remains highly controversial. Actually the non-stop shooting Tintin comes straight from the book: he kills and mistreats lots of animals, his greatest prowess probably being blowing up a rhinoceros with dynamite!

Ayn Marx said...

Though his opinion might well be just his opinion as a reader, an artist, and a writer, but there might be easier for him to dislike Hergé's work for its more racist beginnings and for his work as a not-unwilling (though evidently not enthusiastic---he was no Céline) collaborator with the Germans during their occupation of Belgium.