Fuse #8

Monday, September 04, 2006

Review of the Day: Klezmer

Good morning, everyone. Aw shoot... it's noon, isn't it? Well, that's what you get when you have a whole lazy day Monday to yourself. Today's book proves once and for all that while I refuse to read and review YA novels for this blog, it seems to be perfectly all right for me to read and review YA graphic novels. I guess because they're quick reads, or something.

I went about discovering artist Joann Sfar all wrong. As a children’s librarian, I somehow fell under the distinct impression that I should be reading his stuff for kids rather than his stuff for young adults. That, should anybody ask you, is a mistake. Sfar has many charms, but his work for kids is, by and large, subpar. His work for young adults and adults proper? Genius. “Klezmer” was handed to me by an older librarian who told me that she just couldn’t physically read the story due to the format. More pity her. Sfar’s graphic novels are nothing if not entrancing. I may have fallen in love with this author/illustrator with “Vampire Loves”, but it’s his “Kelzmer” that convinced me of his solid grasp of the form. Not especially surprising when you consider that the fellow has over 100 books in print already.

Two different characters = two different stories. The first character is known simply as The Baron. Traveling with a dozen Jewish companions through Russia, The Baron’s musical troupe is slaughtered by a jealous rival musicians when they try to enter a nearby village. Left only with the harmonica in his pocket, The Baron is able to bring misery to his enemies without shedding so much as a single drop of blood. Along the way he picks up Chava, a singer, and the two begin to carve out a living. In the other story we meet young Yaacov, a student of a yeshiva, who has been kicked out for stealing a coat. This suits Yaacov rather well, all things considered, as he has come to doubt the existence of God as well as his own faith. As he travels he meets up with a group of men who think him a reincarnation, a student of another yeshiva who longs to be told what to do, and a gypsy of questionable morality. By the end these three new musicians meet up with The Baron and are hired for a large party of mysterious intent.

The book is filled to brimming with small immeasurably interesting moments that suck the viewer right in. I loved, for example, when Yaacov joined up with a group of Jewish hermits who were convinced that the boy was their dead rabbi brought back to life. It is their impression that the only reason Yaacov says that he has given up the faith is because he is testing them. To their mind there is no better way to cure yourself of a new fad, religion, or mode of thought than to dive into it 100%. Doing so is the best way to sicken yourself with its problems, allowing you (in time) to go back to the one true faith. This book allows one to question their own faith, as well as understand how necessary this questioning can be. Says Sfar, “I believe God loves those moments when we do without him”. And later, “We always feel a certain sadness when the kids grow up, but it seems to me that the Lord still finds it reassuring when his creatures stop giving credence to pipe dreams”. I’ll drink to that.

If I have a beef with this book, I think it may be the fact that in the course of reading it through, I forgot that it was “Book One” in a series. Imagine my deep disappointment when I reached the story’s conclusion only to find that just as our separate heroes had finally banded together and were about to embark on a new adventure... the story was over. I’m crushed. Crushed and desirous of Part 2. It’s enough to make a girl want to relearn her French and try to order Part 2 straight from France. And should anyone question it, this book is definitely YA. Nudity and violence and all that jazz. I’m also rather touched by a series of naked pictures of Chava that Sfar includes as sketches in the back of the book. His affection for his own creation is kind of sweet. I also love the fact that in all of Sfar’s older work, he tends to have a beautiful woman who fawns over a guy that acts as if he isn’t the slightest bit interested in her. In this case, Chava and The Baron.

At the end of the book, Sfar has a small section of his thoughts on the title and its background. Informed by his own heritage and love of klezmer music, these “Notes For Klezmer, Part 1” tell us about Judaism in Sfar’s family, particularly in his own grandfather. I was particularly taken with the portion that chose to discuss what it’s like to write a graphic novel (a wholly silent affair) about music (entirely audible). In the end, the person who reads a comic about a sense separate from the visual is doing a lot more work than the person who, say, reads a book about writing. Says Sfar, “The idea of doing a musical graphic novel appeals to me hugely because the graphic novel is a world of silence”. I was particularly pleased with an in-depth section at the book’s end that discussed the different recordings of klezmer music that inspired Sfar. With this guide I was able to determine which cds of klezmer tunes I’d like to seek out and find on my own. FYI: Pretty much every song and album mentioned can be found on iTunes too.

Says Sfar of the graphic novel, “To read a comic, not only do you need an active imagination, but you must also accept a whole array of conventions that are inherent to the genre. Whereas a spectator at the movies is a lazy creature that is only asked to plop its buttocks down in a seat and consume what is served. Those who prefer graphic novels or the theater are harder workers”. Take THAT all you movie-watching graphic novel pooh-poohers. Though its format may take a little while to get into, “Klezmer” is one fine book indeed. Worth a read and maybe then some.

Be sure to check out Sfar's website. If you prefer it in English, you may meet with a message from the author reading, "If you have problems understanding this homepage, it may be because it is written in French and maybe you chose not to learn French at school or maybe the teacher was bad or maybe you died before learning but if you are dead this is none of your concern because this homepage is for living people. Death to the dead!". Followed by a small picture of a skull growling, "Joann, you demagogic scum!". Enjoy.


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