This article was originally published at sequart.com in 2006.
Continuing my look at First Second's fall line of books, Joann Sfar's Klezmer is the best of the bunch. Sfar is a master of characterization, creating fully-formed and intriguing people out of thin air. While his narratives are basically just an excuse to have his characters interact, it doesn't matter because his witty dialogue creates a very smooth flow from page to page. His sketchy art is accentuated by his bright and sometimes vulgar watercolor stylings, creating an expressionist atmosphere for his characters. While there’s a certain exuberance on each page, Sfar does put his characters through some rough times. This leads to a bit of excitement on the page as well as philosophical reflection by his protagonists.
The setting here is Eastern Europe after a war. A group of ex-soldiers turned klezmer musicians is gunned down by a rival band. Klezmer essentially is a Jewish variation of blues: an uptempo, rhythmic music that frequently centers around one's misfortunes and tribulations but also on small joys. It's party music, soul music, and money could be made from performing it. That's why a band that served a particular village killed a traveling band even though they were all fellow Jews: this was a gig no one wanted to give up.
The lone surviving member of the original band exacts a form of musical revenge in a memorable scene, and one by one we're introduced to what would become the foundation for a new band. We meet a young man thrown out of his yeshiva for stealing a coat, a woman fleeing her small village because she doesn’t want to get married, a gypsy who comes close to dying at the hands of a lynch mob, and a twitchy ex-student who plays the violin while sleepwalking. Along the way, Sfar has his characters leisurely discuss scapegoating (both of Jew and Gypsy), the alienation that small town life can produce, what it means to be a Jew, and above all the joy of music. The book ends on a cliffhanger, as the newly formed band (after several of them threaten to kill each other) is offered a gig that’s too good to turn down.
The use of color is what makes the book so visually appealing, especially when he applies it non-naturalistically. Instead, color reflects mood, atmosphere and a sense of danger or excitement. Sfar doesn’t overdo it, interspersing the brighter segments with extended scenes in snowy forests. He saves his most vivid colors for scenes at night, especially when his characters are performing. Color is a key to how he manages to depict music on the page.
I have a particular interest in comics about music and am interested to see how each author solves the problem of how to portray sound in a silent medium. Sfar is aided by having characters teaching each other new songs or how to play an instrument in the first place, so there’s extensive use of onomatopoeia. Beyond that, Sfar manages to convey the camaraderie amongst musicians, and this is truly what’s at the heart of the book. The most intriguing character is Yaacov, the former student who’s thrown out of school. That rejection, despite the fact that he was a Talmudic prodigy, leads him to renounce his faith. An encounter with a group of blind believers in a cave is part of a fascinating sequence that reveals while he may be done with being a Jew, Judaism wasn’t quite done with him. Sfar reveals in his notes that Yaacov is in fact a variation of the cat from his excellent The Rabbi's Cat, and that the characters here are the flipside of the religious, studious Jews from that story. The cast of Klezmer have either abandoned or been thrown out of the environments that were central to their faiths and cultures. Becoming musicians was both a way of establishing a new community while still maintaining (even grudgingly or exploitatively) their connections to their old culture.
Sfar speaks to the idea of ethnic vs. religious Judaism in his comments, and the whole purpose of telling a story about a klezmer band was done in order to talk about the memories of particular strains of Jews that no longer exists. In many ways, the book is about its setting and milieu as it is the main characters; the city of Odessa in particular is vivid and exciting. Playing klezmer today is a way of honoring and sharing old memories and stories and doing this across cultures.