Klezmer: Book One: Tales of the Wild East

Joann Sfar; Alex­is Siegel, trans.
  • Review
By – May 25, 2012

The best way to read Joann Sfar’s newest graph­ic nov­el is to pop a CD into the stereo and become immersed in some good klezmer music. Itzhak Perlman’s In the Fiddler’s House would do the trick or, if you can find it, a record­ing by the Ams­ter­dam Klezmer Band, Sfar’s favorite group, as he writes in the end notes which accom­pa­ny this stel­lar com­po­si­tion. On the heels of his crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed The Rabbi’s Cat, which fea­tured the sun-drenched Alge­ria of the 1930’s, Sfar takes his read­ers to the snowy forests and shtetls of pre-World War II East­ern Europe. 

This first book in a pro­ject­ed series fol­lows a group of out­casts who are brought togeth­er by var­i­ous events for the pur­pose of play­ing music. Noah Davi­dovich, nick­named The Baron of My Back­side,” is the only sur­vivor of an attack on his band of trav­el­ing musi­cians. Cha­va, a young woman who wants to leave her remote vil­lage, joins the Baron, and togeth­er they set out for Odessa. Also on the road to Odessa is Yaa­cov, a stu­dent who steals from his rab­bi in order to test God’s exis­tence. After being expelled from his yeshi­va, he takes refuge from the snow in the burned-out wag­on of the Baron’s musi­cians, where he steals a ban­jo and a clar­inet. Vin­cen­zo, a fid­dle-play­ing Ital­ian Jew who was also kicked out of his yeshi­va, soon joins Yaa­cov. Togeth­er they res­cue Tshoko­la, a gyp­sy who has been left for dead by the Cos­sacks. The musi­cians’ jour­neys inter­sect in humor­ous and sus­pense­ful ways, and read­ers are left impa­tient for the next book to see what will transpire. 

Sfar weaves togeth­er the sto­ries of this shab­by group of musi­cians in a unique and flu­id style. His stun­ning water­col­or and ink images jump off the page in a bril­liant palette of col­ors. Pur­ple suns, aqua skies, and sun­set-col­ored faces meld in star­tling ways to high­light the emo­tions and actions of the char­ac­ters. Read­ers are treat­ed to an addi­tion­al 15 pages of author’s notes about klezmer music, graph­ic nov­els, anti-Semi­tism, and God, as well as six pages of artist stud­ies of the dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties. Klezmer the graph­ic nov­el belongs in every library that trea­sures the unique slice of Jew­ish life that only klezmer the music can provide.

Wendy Was­man is the librar­i­an & archivist at the Cleve­land Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry in Cleve­land, Ohio.

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