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Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Rabbi's Cat by Joann Sfar

THE RABBI'S CAT is the English language version of the first three books of Joann Sfar's graphic novel series LE CHAT DU RABBIN, published by Pantheon in 2005.

The story is set among the Jewish community in 1930s Algeria, where a cat owned by an old rabbi and his young daughter eats the family parrot, gaining the power of speech. The story then follows the cat's philosophical arguments with the rabbi and his mentor, and then the marriage of the daughter to a young French rabbi, bringing the entire family on a trip to Paris.

This is a fascinating book, one of the best modern adult-oriented European comics I've read (I'm a big fan of some of the classic kids stuff like ASTERIX and TINTIN, but the modern adult stuff I've looked at tends to look very good but read a bit cold to me).

Despite the fantasy element of the talking cat, the heart of the story is in how well it evokes a real period and exotic location in recent history, and the cultures that live there. While obviously I can't judge how accurate it is, it feels very nice, with a nice texture to the artwork, especially how it works with the colours.

The first book, "The Bar Mitzvah", deals a lot with the cat, and how he and those around him deal with his new power of speech. It's the funniest book, with a lot of back and forth on philosophical issues between the cat and the rabbi on the mechanics of a cat converting to Judaism.

"Malka of the Lions" is the second book, and my favourite in this collection, focusing more on the rabbi (still narrated by the cat) and the events that follow from two letters he gets on the first page. One announces a visit from his cousin Malka, a wandering type with a tame lion companion, and the other involves him having to take a test in French to become an "official" rabbi. It's an interestingly constructed story with a mix of humour and sadness, and works really well.

"Exodus" is the final section, and has the cast visiting Paris, home of the rabbi's new son-in-law. A bit of a change in tone, as the rabbi has to deal with a new and far less Jewish environment than he's used to, a lot of interesting stuff, not all of it successful but with a very satisfactory conclusion.

Well worth checking out, you can see a lot of sample pages in the links above.

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