The Rabbi's Cat
by Joann Sfar
2006 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material
The Rabbi's Cat was a slow burn for me. For the first two-thirds of it I wasn't enjoying the book. The ending however takes the themes of that beginning and brings them all together in a way that I wound up liking.
In Algeria there is a rabbi, his daughter, and their cat. The cat eats a parrot and gains the ability to speak. The cat is still a cat though and behaves like it demonstrating the dishonesty and behavior that any cat would have. The book then follows the cat observing Jewish culture in Algeria.
There are a lot of reasons to dislike The Rabbi's Cat. The story is almost entirely told in captions that are written in the passive voice. The dialog, such as it is since it's mainly in those captions, tends to be stilted. Because the story is broken off from the action scenes and characters feel disconnected from the story. I got the feeling as I was reading that I was being told about interesting things that were happening but not actually getting to see them. A cat debating a rabbi about whether a cat can be a Jew should be an interesting scene with plenty of room for character building, witty dialog, and emotional give and take; Sfar's style makes it as interesting as a CSPAN recap of the House agricultural committee.
It's not simply the translation that's the problem there. Sfar's artwork is similarly bland. Every page is laid out exactly the same; two columns of three panels. And the individual panels aren't well drawn. Sfar uses a cartoony style but is completely inconsistent in design from panel to panel. Images shift from realistic to almost completely abstract with no rhyme or reason. I wouldn't have had a problem with the strange style if it was used consistently or with the shifts if they made a kind of thematic sense in the panels but The Rabbi's Cat has art that just comes across as sloppy.
What won me over was the character development. In the final third of the book the rabbi's daughter gets married and the rabbi joins the newlyweds on a trip to Paris where the culture clash between ancient traditions and the modern world are put on display. Earlier in the book the rabbi has a friendly encounter with a Sufi mullah which might as well have had a flashing neon sign above it reading "Tolerance is good!" That last third has the same lesson but it's about the more subtle differences between everyone and it is much less blunt about it. The rabbi has a crisis of faith when he is removed from his comfort zone and gets to observe the secular world up close. His daughter is dealing with the complications of new in-laws and having second thoughts about her hasty marriage. The cat, however, remains a cat.
It's a close call but I don't think I'd recommend The Rabbi's Cat. I was left with a positive feeling thanks to the huge improvement in quality of storytelling at the end but I was unhappy with the rest of the book. So I can't really recommend a book on the basis of it ending well. Still if you happen to come across it and read it then I recommend sticking with it because it gets much better toward the end.