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Review

Will the last Jew to leave Europe please turn out the lights?

Joann Sfar has been called France’s “messiah of the comic book”. His buoyantly optimistic early work rewrote narratives of Jewish-Muslim animosity by sketching a shared history and delineating a path forward for interfaith relations. So why is Sfar’s new novel so full of despair?

It is curious how little-known Joann Sfar remains in Britain given his meteoric rise as a graphic novelist in France. The author, who has written and illustrated well over fifty graphic novels, had by his early thirties won the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulȇme, the most prestigious prize in the francophone comic book world. Critics have vaunted Sfar’s work as belonging to a second golden age of the French-Belgian comic; the Nouvel Observateur called him the “messiah of the comic book”.

The jewel in Sfar’s crown is The Rabbi’s Cat (Le Chat du Rabbin). Set in 1930s colonial Algeria, this bewitching series of comics, whose nine volumes have sold over 450,000 copies since the first was published in 2002, centres on a local rabbi, Sfar, whose cat eats a parrot, learns to speak, declares himself Jewish and demands a bar mitzvah. In later volumes, we meet a sheikh who shares a name and a friendship with the rabbi.

The cover of the third book in The Rabbi's Cat series, 'The Exodus'.
The cover of the third book in The Rabbi’s Cat series, ‘The Exodus’

The Rabbi’s Cat – warm, colourful and above all, funny – was Sfar’s attempt to rebut dominant narratives about Jews and Muslims in France. The book’s Algerian setting is significant in this regard. Unlike the British or American Jewish communities, overwhelmingly made up of Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, France was transformed by the immigration of Jews from North Africa after the Second World War. 240,000 arrived – predominantly from Algeria, but also from Morocco and Tunisia – between 1944 and 1979, more than doubling the French-Jewish population. In The Rabbi’s Cat, Sfar was keen to emphasise French Jews’ North African heritage (which he himself, stemming from Algeria on his father’s side, shares), and at a time when the community had come to be perceived as French and therefore implicitly white – a perception rooted in then minister of justice Adolphe Crémieux’s decision in 1870 to grant French citizenship to Algerian Jews, but not to their Muslim compatriots. “To assimilate them [the Jewish North African immigrants] to the newly arrived [Muslim] North African immigrant community,” wrote the French-Jewish philosopher Shmuel Trigano in 2001, “constitutes one of the worst regressions that could exist…they became French precisely so that they could leave Muslim society.”

Sfar deconstructs the use of divide-and-rule rhetoric of French colonialists such as Abbé Lambert, p.193
Sfar deconstructs the use of divide-and-rule rhetoric of French colonialists such as Abbé Lambert, p.193

Sfar’s work resisted the assumption of Jewish-Muslim animosity. Of course, there had been tensions – even violence – between members of the two groups over the years. These tensions were exacerbated by developments in Israel and Palestine: in 1968, three days before the anniversary of the 1967 War, a riot broke out between Algerian Muslims and Tunisian Jews in Belleville in Paris. Since then, many have interpreted the Muslim and Jewish communities as being irrevocably opposed in France. Despite notable moments of unity – many Jewish activists joined with Muslim workers to campaign for Palestinian rights in 1968, while in the 80s, Jews and Muslims were integral to the SOS Racisme campaign – the narrative remains one of conflict.

The rabbi’s cat critiques the necessity for Algerian rabbis to pass a test in French to be permitted to practise, p.68
The rabbi’s cat critiques the necessity for Algerian rabbis to pass a test in French to be permitted to practise, p.68

The Rabbi’s Cat redrew this narrative of perennial conflict in the friendship between the rabbi and sheikh. It also suggested that hostilities were often more a product of the divide-and-rule tactics of French colonialists (such as Abbé Lambert, mayor of the Algerian city of Oran) than of any epochal clash of civilisations – in fact it was able to point this out without disrupting the general tone of nostalgic warmth. The Rabbi’s Cat cleared a path forward for French Jews and Muslims.

An encounter with a Chagall-ian Ashkenazi in an North African Jewish world, p.218
An encounter with a Chagall-ian Ashkenazi in an North African Jewish world, p.218

The Last Jew in Europe (Le Dernier Juif d’Europe) has none of Sfar’s characteristic optimism. His latest work – notably a novel, not a comic book – is a cri de coeur against the antisemitism of French society, and a radical break from its author’s previous integrationism.

Set in contemporary Paris, it is formally challenging. Veering vertiginously from comedy to rage and then to despair, with a hectic plot and a heavy dose of horror and the supernatural, the novel is hard to synopsise, but broadly features two plot arcs. One centres on a Jewish veterinarian named François Abergel, who is forced to interrupt preparations for his upcoming wedding to his boyfriend Léningrad after his father Désiré goes missing. Désiré, sick of a lifetime of antisemitism, decides to undergo a foreskin restoration and then seeks to test his new non-Jewish status in different locales across Paris (if this seems crude, it’s because it is; humour and metaphor are laid on with a trowel in the novel). Désiré goes as far as becoming an antisemite, then a philosemite (which Sfar suggests is the worst kind of antisemitism), before circling back to antisemitism. Désiré uses his new non-Judaism to insinuate himself into antisemitic circles, only to find that the traditional antisemites on the hard right are no longer particularly interested in hating Jews. Antisemitism in France is no longer where it used to be, but often where you’d least expect it: the new social movement of the Gilet Jaunes, where anti-oligarch and anti-Zionist rhetoric quickly transforms into antisemitism; and in the media’s insufficient response to dyed-in-the-wool antisemites such as Dieudonné, who originated the quenelle salute and whom Sfar amply satiries in his novel as Donnémoidufric (Givemesomemoney). 

The cover of The Last Jew in Europe
The cover of The Last Jew in Europe

In the almost twenty years since The Rabbi’s Cat was first released, the situation for French Jews has gone from precarious to extreme. In 2015, a gunman who had reportedly converted to radical Islam in prison took hostages at a kosher supermarket in Paris; a year later, a 15-year-old ISIS supporter slashed a teacher with a machete outside a Jewish school in Marseille; in 2017 and 2018, two elderly Jewish women were murdered in their homes by assailants with Islamist links. Nor is antisemitism only flourishing on the radical fringes, but also in the mainstream: last year, the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut was antisemitically attacked at a Gilets Jaunes rally. “When I was growing up in France,” Sfar said at a press event for his new novel, “hating the Jews was something repugnant; now, it’s almost the consensus.” The vast majority of French Jews agree with him: 95 per cent of those the EU surveyed in 2018 believed that antisemitism is a fairly or very big problem in the country, a greater proportion than any EU country. Between 2018 and 2019, antisemitic attacks in France shot up by 74 per cent. No surprise, then, that Sfar’s attitude has changed.

The second strand of the plot centres on a supernatural world in a world coexistent with, but invisible to, the Abergels. A libidinous Russian-Jewish vampire named Ionas – killed in Ukraine before his wedding a hundred and thirty years before, and the subject of Sfar’s first novel, L’Éternel – is attempting to seduce a fire-eating femme fatale when he is savagely attacked by a monster. Mute, sponge-like, absorbing violence then meting it out, this monster (named Ba’al, after the ancient Phoenician deity) thrives on hatred, particularly towards Jews. To save her, and so that his life can return to normal, Ionas assembles a motley crew – including his long-suffering partner, an American-Jewish psychiatrist named Rebecka; her friend, an English-Jewish rabbi; and the rabbi’s monster friends – on a quest to destroy Ba’al.

While Sfar’s affection for fantasy has survived the transition from comic book to novel, the supernatural elements of The Last Jew in Europe are decidedly less cute than Rabbi Sfar’s talking cat. The preponderance of monsters in the narrative is emblematic of this. There are bad monsters (Ba’al) and good (Ionas), but all are equally monstrous. Rebecka explains:

First of all there was another outbreak of monsters. I could not cope anymore. Ever more dysfunctional and anxious, each one of them persuaded that something terrible was about to happen. Then the Monster World. Namely the arrival in the real world of information and facts that are absolutely abhorrent that the ordinary population accepts as if nothing was out of order.

The obvious analogue here is antisemitism. Where it was once a case of isolated “outbreaks”, monstrous Jew-hatred is now woven into the fabric of French society. We are living in the monster world.

This perhaps explains Sfar’s choice of the novel form. Where the comic book’s frame contains and resolves, this is emphatically a work that resists confinement and categorisation. Not only are the characters’ identities fluid, but quick pivots into genre fiction (horror, superhero) further undermine any generic stability; at one point, plot and characterisation collapse into an eight-page rant about the rise of antisemitism within the Gilet Jaunes movement. Sfar has chosen a freewheeling prose style apt for its unclassifiable, amorphous subject and target: a new French antisemitism.

In the end, Ba’al is defeated, and in a typically topsy-turvy fashion. Appearing increasingly like an antisemitic caricature as it feeds on Jew-hatred, the monster is killed by the antisemitic mob which mistakes it for a Jew. This ending is unsatisfying and deliberately so. Sfar recently remarked that he does not write to change the world, nor does he write in a militant way. But Sfar’s early work did seem to suggest – perhaps too optimistically – that a different world was possible for French Jews and Muslims. Its vision was not militant, but instead cohesive. And yet confronted with spiralling antisemitism today, Sfar finds himself lost, almost ranting and raving, surrounded by monsters. The Last Jew in Europe offers no exit from the dystopia it depicts. 

William Pimlott is a PhD student at UCL studying Yiddish and British Jewish history. He is also a Labour councillor in the City of London.