I picked up this book on Sunday at Big Planet Comics in Georgetown in a big stack of other books. I knew Joann Sfar from his work with Lewis Trondheim on the Dungeon series and I was absolutely willing to take a chance on this book entirely due to that content. To be honest, this was one of the last things I threw on the pile, but I’m very happy at the impulse buy.
As you would guess from the title, the entire book is about a rabbi and his cat. What is less obvious is that the entire book is told from the point of view of the cat, who does many cat-type things through the course of the book. He also gains the ability to talk, which is far less cat-like (in my experience).
The book is told with six panels to a page without exception and most of those panels contain a caption at the top edge and some occasional dialog. The art is fairly straightforward line art, beautifully colored. Sfar does a fantastic job of knowing what level to draw the various scenes at. Most are rough thumbnails, although he does occasionally knuckle down and produce some amazing panels like the one below. Other times, he pulls back and produces a more impressionistic style – whatever is most appropriate for the panel at hand.
The story itself is set in the 1930s in French Algeria, where Arabs and Jews are living together under the oppression of the French. There are some very nice set pieces describing the casual bigotry of the French and the relative lack of enmity between the Arabs and the Jews (even pointing out that they often share the same last names). The majority of the story, though, is about the rabbi and his students, friends and family.
This story takes the rabbi and his daughter to Paris, where the rabbi (and his cat) learn about how Algerian Jews fit into the larger, more cosmopolitan culture. Above it all, however, is a very simple understanding that life can be very good if you let it be. Sometimes all it takes is music to make the characters happy. Sometimes it just takes food. But for a deceptively simple conceit, the book produces some seriously profound ideas that are both entertaining and endearing.
If you like stories about family, cats or just want to read something that will make you smile repeatedly, I would highly recommend this book. But don’t take my word for it – the back cover tells me that it won the Jury Prize at the Angouleme. There’s even a sequel – which I’ll probably get around to buying one of these days.