Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Rabbi's Cat

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Rabbi's Cat (Pantheon, 2007).

I've noticed so many glowing reviews of The Rabbi's Cat by the French cartoonist Joann Sfar that I finally started looking out for a copy, finding a discounted one in one of Nashville's Great Escape locations earlier in the summer. I didn't know anything about it, but I'm mercurial enough that sometimes a little critical praise is enough to make me want to check something out sight otherwise unseen, but, y'know, as cheaply as possible.

At any rate, I found a completely delightful little story set in prewar French Algeria, where an elderly rabbi lives with his lovely daughter Zlabya, and one weird-looking, truth-telling cat, who gains the power of speech after eating a parakeet and stealing its ability to talk. The cat immediately makes a nuisance of itself, upsetting the household to the point that the rabbi has to question whether it might not be a good idea for the cat to have a bar mitzvah after all.

Over the course of the three stories reprinted here - they originally appeared in the 48-page annual "albums" common to France - the cat gains and loses his speech, debates the importance of family and culture with a lion, and accompanies Zlabya and her father on Zlabya's honeymoon trip to Paris to meet her new in-laws. This ill-timed trip coincides with Shabbat, and the rabbi's inability and refusal to spend any money for a hotel room.

I enjoyed the heck out of all three stories. I love Sfar's style, with so much expression and humor wrought from minimal linework. The story's extremely witty, with the grouchy rabbi suggesting offense can be taken from everybody's well-meaning actions. It's hugely charming from start to finish. There are two further Rabbi's Cat stories. These are available in a second compiled edition for the US market, and I'll have to track that down soon. Highly recommended.

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