The Rabbi’s Cat by Joann Sfar

Joann Sfar’s graphic novel is a story about… Well, who knows what it’s about. But there is a cat in the story, a cat who can talk after eating a rabbi’s parrot. The man is dismayed by the bloodshed, and he is further distraught when it turns out that the cat is using his speaking abilities to tell lies. “The word,” the rabbi says, “exists to speak the world, not to falsify it.” So, the rabbi decides to teach the cat the Torah – “the instruction manual of existence” – but the cat has no patience for that. He wants to start “at the end” – with the esoteric Kabbalah, a school of thought that (according to some traditions) should not be studied before the age of forty.

And from these initial events the tale develops. The book hasn’t much of a plot, unless life itself can be considered a plot – it’s as if the reader drops in on the life of the characters, as they go through their everyday lives in the Algeria and France of the 1930s. The rabbi and his cat explore life as it is, in its grandness and vainness – it sparkles and shines, but when it rains, it pours. Algeria is flooded in bright, poetic colors, while Paris, France can be dour and dark, yet filled with life and dreams.

Like so many other French books, authenticity is at the heart of The Rabbi’s Cat. “People like what’s authentic,” the rabbi says while walking the rainy streets of Paris. “If you introduce them to real Algerian music,” he says, “they can only love it.” Not quite. But the soundless staging of Algerian music in The Rabbi’s Cat is so lyrical that it may tempt the reader to go searching for the real thing, the music itself. That’s how true Joann Sfar’s book is.

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