February 1, 2009

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The Rabbi's Cat 2

Written by Joan Sfar
Illustrated by Joan Sfar
Pantheon

There are times when I wish I didn't commit myself to reviewing everything I read, because there are times when I hit a book I don't know how to review.

On the other hand, reviewing everything makes me really think hard about what I'm reading and what I thought about it, so that each work, good or bad, is given its due. Once I started reviewing everything, no matter how brief the reviews were in the early days, I found I remembered what I was reading better than before. When you read as much as I do, that's helpful, as I admit some of the books I read in the middle of this past decade are something of a blur.

All of this brings me to this review, a book I'd definitely duck reviewing if I could because, after over a month to think about it and also going over sections of the book several times, I'm really not sure what to make of it.

A sequel to the first, this time our cat is not tied to his master nearly so much, as he travels with the Rabbi's cousin, a street performer, as well as accompanying the Rabbi and friends to find a Jerusalem in Africa.

And I think that's the main problem this time. Part of the magic of the original was Sfar's use of the cat as an amoral observer, questioning everything that the Rabbi took for granted. Here, he's the observer with no foil, so instead of a back and forth, we have a monologue. Rather than challenge the ideas of those he sees, the Cat watches as the actors pass about him on the stage. His passive actions, especially in the second story (during fights over religion and race), are out of character with the cat we met in the first volume.

There's also the problem of the cat's ability to speak. I liked that he used that power to save the Rabbi but at a powerful cost. Now, he's back speaking again, and even talking in varied tongues. It just ruins the mood for me.

Combine that with the wandering narratives that seem to go nowhere--there's no resolution to any of them, honestly, from religious tension to proto-zionists to African Jews. It's all just thrown about, as though Sfar wasn't quite sure what to include this time and so he opted for just about anything he felt like drawing.

That's a shame, because I really enjoyed the first book. This one, not so much, and as you can tell by the scattered nature of the review, I'm still not entirely able to say why.

[Those who've read this one--I'd really like your comments, maybe it will help.]