You’d be forgiven for having given up on Rutu Modan ever releasing another book (it’s been over seven years since The Property, itself the culmination of a blinding three book run that began with Exit Wounds and continued with Jamilti), but if (like us) you have been waiting, you can relax: Tunnels is every bit as good as you’d hope and absolutely worth the long wait.
In terms of the story, superficially, you could describe it Raiders of the Lost Ark by way of Tin Tin, in that it’s the story of an archaeological excavation for the Ark of the Covenant that has about it an air of breezy innocence and a vast cast of characters. To begin with you have two opposing forces – Nili (and her young phone-obsessed son Doctor) and her brother Broshi. Nili loves her father (himself a celebrated archaeologist) and wants to honour his memory by completing an excavation that began when she was young but which was stopped by the Intifada. Broshi on the other hand now works for her father’s greatest rival and so spies on Nili and inveigles himself into her dig to report back.
Using a combination of ancient transcripts, her father’s drawings and her own memories of the dig she took part in as a young girl, Nili gradually draws about an enthusiastic band of religious sorts, activists and smugglers as they tunnel beneath the wall that separates Israeli land from Palestinian land, dealing with soldiers and rivals and, in time, caches of dynamite. It’s a mostly gentle comedy of manners and archaeological / academic rivalry, for the most part, that manages to weave theological issues seamlessly alongside what feels like a sincere exploration of parental roles (via Nili and Broshi’s looking after their poorly father and Nili’s not always close care of her son, Doctor).
As with The Property, the gentle comedy is such that you half forget these stories are largely taking part in a highly disputed place (the tunnels run beneath a wall that separates Jewish land from Palestinian land, characters talk about owning the land beneath the land, about extending their control of land etc – highly disputed topics but rendered somehow benign in Modan’s careful hands – or perhaps they don’t, perhaps we are not up to speed enough to know – let’s just note instead that there feels a mild pulse of unease beneath the essentially jolly japes (including, at one point, a cow that looks like it’s jumping over the moon) – japes that, in time, explode across a single page length panel to dazzling effect).
Fundamentally, we trust Modan. We give ourselves up to her narrative. Does it exist outside politics? Does anything? We don’t know. Do we enjoy the harum-scarum high jinx? Yes we do. Do we like her art – the way in which she chooses to represent her characters, and the action, in a visual medium? Yes we do. Do we think we’ll return to this story perhaps more than Modan’s other stories? We do. There seems to be, hovering at the edges of this, some hum, some indefinable thing that suggests Modan is talking about all of the big topics (religion, life, death, the universe, everything) and (we suspect) this isn’t a meal you can take in a single sitting.
By way of summing up, two things: we are glad she is back; we hope we don’t have to wait so long for the next book.
Any Cop?: Modan is a Satrapi. By which we mean to say: she is important, an important graphic artist doing interesting, entertaining work. Tunnels is full of curiosities and wonder. Take a gander why doncha?