Catalyst

Cartoons got their start in life as large drawings, intended as studies for more serious works such as frescoes or paintings. If you were of an argumentative mode, you might argue the drawings of animals and hands on the walls of the Altamira caves as cartoons. Brian Fagan, with some credentials as an archaeologist, argues that these drawings and others like them, worldwide, were rendered by shamans, their purpose somewhere between record keeping and spiritual acknowledgment.

With the appearance of the printing press, cartoons and drawings found their way into an army of publications, ranging from broadsheets to newspapers and booklets. “Poor Richard’s Almanac” is arguably an illustrated book, and many historians argue that the first “major” graphic novel published in the U.S. was the 1842 project, “The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck,” running serially in “Brother Jonathan,” a humor magazine.

For years thereafter, there were and still are numerous, respectable representations of so-called comic book and super hero art, featuring the stories and art of such diverse authors as George Harriman’s iconic and lovely “Krazy Kat,” Harold R. Foster’s “Prince Valliant,” and Milton Caniff’s “Steve Canyon” and “Terry and the Pirates.” To think lightly of these and others like them is the equivalent of having missed an entire dimension in an Einstein equation.

My own sense of where the graphic novel gained traction as a no-nonsense literary genre is Art Spiegleman’s 1986 “Maus: A Survivor’s Guide,” in which Holocaust Jews are rendered as white mice, Poles are represented as pigs, with the Nazis presented as cats in a wartime Europe depicted as a mouse trap. “Maus” and Spiegleman have become iconic. The graphic novel is a firm and forceful reality, illustrated in yet another demonstration of its reach by the fact that Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, died in 1991, but lives vividly on in forty-four graphic novels of such scope that adults frequently outmaneuver the intended child reader to access them.

It is no coincidence that Pantheon, the publisher of “Maus,” has published the remarkable work under review here. Pantheon has published a number of others, all with the obvious aim of underscoring the inherent entertainment of the form with an edge of discomforting encounter with the sad wisdom or harsh realities associated with truth.

“The Rabbi’s Cat” by Joann Sfar is indeed entertaining as well as provocative, its splendidly drawn panels bringing us into numerous encounters with sad wisdom, harsh realities, and in the bargain, revealed truth.

Set in the Algeria of the 1930s, before World War II erupted into reality, the principal narrator is a male cat, scruffy, often self-serving, and definitely a cynic.

“Jewish people,” he tells us early on, “aren’t crazy about dogs. A dog will bite you, chase you, bark. And Jews have been bitten, chased, and barked at for so long, that in the end, they prefer cats. Well, not all Jews, but that’s what my master says.”

The cat’s master is a widowed rabbi, whom he marginally respects. He also belongs to the rabbi’s daughter, whom he adores. Another member of the household is a parrot, a bird who annoyingly demonstrates the power of speech, but it is speech without substance.

We are underway to story with this set-up, enhanced by the cat’s scathing commentary. In the panel directly following the cat’s off-stage loss of patience with the parrot, his frontal attack on it, and his cleaning his paws after having eaten the bird, we are witness to the cat’s newly found ability to talk. One of the first things he does with this talent is to tell the rabbi of the parrot, “He left. An urgent errand. He said not to wait for him for dinner.”

In the next panel, we see the rabbi rushing to tell his daughter of the miracle. The daughter is impressed, but remembers about Jews and rabbis, suspicion—even of miracles. “Yes, but there is a great misfortune too. He tells only lies.”

“That’s not true,” the cat says, and now the story is in full throttle, involving arguments between the cat and the rabbi that are in fact vivid demonstrations of Talmudic law debates between learned opponents. When the cat scores enough legal/rhetorical points, the courtroom shifts to the office of the rabbi’s rabbi, and by the time we have witnessed this stern exchange of ethical and existential questions, whether we know it or not, we have been exposed to the centuries-old debates about what it means to be Jew.

In subsequent adventures, the lines between human and animal, Jew and non-Jew, speakers and non-speakers are deftly blurred, making us think about ourselves even as we are being amused by the travails of the characters.

The cat, deciding he is, after all, a Jew, wants to be prepared for bar mitzvah, the male coming-of-age ritual. People die, get married, engage in rituals. Arab and Jew exist in a world and lifestyle that seems to our current senses as though they were concocted by Borges or Marquez—worlds of magical realism.

In yet another tribute to the epic sweep and power of the illustrated novel, “The Rabbi’s Cat,” originally published in French, has had appearances throughout the world, where it has attracted an audience of young readers and adults.

Like so many works of art and narrative that seem to be a mysterious blend of genera and energies, “The Rabbi’s Cat” provides ancient wisdom, modern sensitivity, and the lovely cynicism of creatures that understand the vast legions of possibilities within the human and animal forms.

One of my favorite moments comes when the rabbi is seen before his congregation, conducting the pre-Sabbath service, asking the question: “So, my friends, if we can be happy without respecting The Torah [God’s Law], why should we exhaust ourselves to apply all these concepts that make life so complicated?”

Then there is his response, which is a perfect fit for this wonderful, remarkable story, and, since most of the characters are Jewish, there is their response to his response.

All this arguing, it could make you crazy.

Yes, but it’s our crazy.