“Why are you so harsh?” a rabbi asks his cat. “I’m just trying to tell the truth, to see how it feels,” the cat responds. It’s a terrific exchange from a graphic novel that’s loaded with them.
I could probably fill an entire review with nothing but favorite lines from Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat (Pantheon Books), but that wouldn’t do justice to Sfar’s wonderful collection of stories. Visually sumptuous, warmly meditative, and generously humane, this is book is real pleasure.
It’s told from the perspective of the title character, a cat who gains the ability to speak after eating the family parrot. That turn of events could have easily led to an attempt at myth or parable, but Sfar seems more concerned with the inner life of his cast: the cat, the rabbi, the rabbi’s daughter, and the various people that come in and out of their lives.
The cat is a wonder of a character. He’s devoted to his own interests: comfort, diversion, amusement, and curiosity. His unexpected verbosity is as much of a curse as a blessing. He enjoys philosophical debate, teasing humans and undermining their assumptions of morality with his blunt perspective. But his diversions have a price, as his life, even his dreams, don’t have the same simplicity and comfort they once did.
As diverting as the talking cat is, that novelty ends up being almost incidental to the book’s pleasures. Sfar looks at faith, family, culture, love, language, and a host of other concerns, and he does it in a gentle, almost meandering manner. The Rabbi’s Cat has the rhythms and feel of a children’s picture book but the substance of a novel. It has a very appealing playfulness, too.
The cat’s narrative voice holds everything together. His skepticism is a wonderful counterpoint to the seriousness of the issues the rabbi faces. It leavens things, but it doesn’t diminish their sentiment and impact.
I’ve been struggling with a way to characterize Sfar’s illustrations. The only phrase I can come up with is “ugly-beautiful.” The cat is the best example of this. At times he’s grotesquely exaggerated, but with a consistent grace and expressiveness. The daughter, while not rendered beautifully, is clearly a beautiful woman in Sfar’s visual language. The sense of place is wonderful, from the desert warmth of 1930s Algiers to the grey streets of Paris in a later chapter.
The book adheres to a six-panel-per-page grid, but it never feels rigid or repetitive. Sfar peppers his panels with vivid dreamscapes, distinct even in contrast to the wonderfully real landscapes he offers. And he has a canny way of juxtaposing words and images, as in the last sequence of the first chapter. As the cat expostulates on human nature and his own contradictions, the images provide their own counterpoint, challenging the cat’s assertions even as they reinforce them. It’s a great piece of visual storytelling, and it’s hardly the only one on display.
A while back, I asked for recommendations of comics that take you someplace unexpected and different. The Rabbi’s Cat does that, geographically and emotionally. It’s a real delight.
(For those of you lucky enough to be in Toronto, Sfar is going to visit Tuesday, Sept. 20. Click here for more details.)