2.01.2006

Graphic Novel Of The Month

The Rabbi’s Cat (Pantheon Books): Joann Sfar’s latest offering is set in an interesting place. For this tale of faith, crisis, and talking cats, he chose Algeria, circa 1930. As this North African country struggles toward modernity, Arabs, Jews, and Europeans peacefully co-exist. This work is heavily layered and ostensibly, the cat is used as a cipher to pose challenging religious quandaries. Look deeper and you’ll find spiritual journeys of the principal characters. They endure distinct crises of faith and ultimately transcend toward the end of their character arcs. The work also exposes universal truths that everyone can appreciate regardless of the degree to which you embrace faith.

Establishing the cat as a talking animal puts the author in a safe position from which to offer religious questions. These dilemmas reveal dogmatic inconsistencies that arise within any religion. For example, the cat wonders why, if he is a child of God, can he not receive bar mitzvah? Why are murder and eating non-kosher food viewed as equally offensive transgressions? It’s as if the author struggles to reconcile these in his own mind.

The narrative shifts from an ethereal feel and emerges as largely more realistic. The cat, his master, and the Rabbi’s daughter, are on journeys of discovery. They endure a personal crisis of faith and come to new understandings about their position in the world.

Thematically, the cat is “born” by developing speech and his crisis is loss of that ability. He doesn’t regain speech, but does develop a “voice” that he expresses through choices and actions. He establishes independence, avoids reliance on his master’s affection, and matures to an altered worldview.

The Rabbi’s daughter moves from a comfortable lifestyle with few concerns, to a very mature situation. Through this process she loses her childish demeanor. Her crisis is entering a marriage, realizing it requires compromise, being confident, and maturing to that life. Her new relationship is grounded in reality and not idealism.

The Rabbi presents the most obvious and intense crisis. He literally doubts the existence of God, being challenged by the cat and lack of piety of family members. He ultimately realizes that spirituality lies on a continuum of varying intensity. This is best exemplified by his nephew’s crude existence in Paris and a conversation with his daughter’s father-in-law. It’s not black or white, people incorporate into their lives the faith they need. This is interesting commentary on religion’s place in the modern world.

Several universal truths are directed squarely at the reader. The unity of all major faiths is handled well. One such example involves a conversation surrounding the name of a Rabbi. The men debate the origin of the name as either Hebrew or Arabic, making a compelling case for both. Later, the Rabbi is shunned by synagogues and can only find refuge in a Catholic church. This cross-denominational solidarity is a strong message.

We’re also reminded that beliefs may be based largely on perspective. The Rabbi interestingly refers to Jesus as “that Rabbi from Palestine dying on the cross.” One of the strongest truths displayed is delivered by the Rabbi’s nephew. “Uncle, the public doesn’t like things that are complicated.” The author’s comment can be interpreted as one on the comic book industry. A book about North African Jews living peacefully in Algeria among Arabs and Catholics. How could that be interesting or commercially successful? “We live in an imperfect world,” is the only explanation offered.

Ultimately, the character arcs lead to the unifying themes of acceptance and tolerance. It’s a beautiful stance of inclusion, not exclusion.

This book recently won the prestigious Jury Prize in Angouleme, France. If the Eisner Awards (held annually at the Comic Con International in San Diego) are the comic book equivalent of the Academy Awards, then Angouleme is the Cannes Film Festival and the Jury Prize is the Palm D’or. The Rabbi’s Cat now holds this honor. Maybe the world is a bit more perfect after all.

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