Rutu Modan’s Tunnels

A thrilling adventure story, Rutu Modan’s new graphic novel, Tunnels, is also very funny. The story has a buoyant, almost farcical energy, and there’s a satirical aspect too, an empathetic satire which is fond rather than acrimonious. As with her previous work, Modan’s subject is Israeli life, and the story’s archaeological focus shows the preoccupation with historical justification in the struggle over land. Given the acute distrust between Arabs and Jews and the sensitivities of both groups, the work’s easy irreverence is remarkable. We might assume tragedy and trauma are the only appropriate paradigms for circumstances so locked in intractable conflict, but Modan proves that another lens is possible.

The plot centres on Nili and her brother, Broshi, children of a once brilliant archaeologist now lost to dementia, and their pursuit of his great, unfinished project: the Ark of the Covenant. The notional location of the Ark is somewhere between the Israeli and Palestinian territories and soon groups from both sides are drawn in. The story allows Modan a broad sweep and her amiable satire is even-handed, encompassing religious extremists from both sides, the Israeli army, egotistical academics and wealthy antiques collectors. The absolute specificity of the place is vividly evoked: capturing the distinctive ways in which religion is a living, daily presence. Gedanken, for example, who excavates the land in order to find further proofs of Israeli legitimacy, and his goofy squad of settler activists. Gedanken’s speech overflows with an easy stream of religious cliches, while the young men squabble over religious dogma: ‘The Ark carries itself dumbass. It’ll hover right over to the Temple Mount’ (138). It’s not pious or precious, precisely because of that everydayness – it’s tempered by the youthful idiom, and the need to hustle (‘Are we getting paid?’ ‘How long are we going to be here?’ ‘Payment- in the world to come. Timeline- the coming of the Messiah. Next question?’ (79). And the comedy arises through the incongruity of the transcendental (religious faith) and the everyday.

The Commander is another great character: and here too, the agenda is explicitly about emphasising ‘our historical connection with the land’ (103). He’s busy planning for his twins’ Bar Mitzvah – and one panel shows a military map covered with Post-it notes: ‘Break-in to Atlit naval base’, ‘Shooting range’, ‘Na’mer Brigade Memorial’, ‘Meeting with Holocaust Survivor (Uncle Moishe)’. It’s a neatly economical survey of the ideology of Zionism in action, with acts of remembrance and militarisation necessary for ‘the development and protection of the state of Israel’ (OED), all packaged to inculcate the young. Only the Torah reading task is left, and the Commander is dissatisfied with the location of the Western Wall, now too run of the mill; ‘This is the last task. It’s gotta be larger than life’. Leaning on his desk, his brow furrowed in thought, he thinks out loud, ‘A shame the Temple was destroyed’ (103). The Temple was of course destroyed in antiquity – and it’s the doting (and competitive) father’s myopism that makes the loss freshly regrettable. It’s funny – again, that juxtaposition between the transcendental and the everyday – and also sensitive to the psychology of a parent always on the alert to both satisfy and educate his children, a combination that is characteristic of Modan’s particular brew of satire and empathy.

There are fewer satirical portraits of Arabs, perhaps because the satire is focused primarily upon those with power, but two young members of Isis, Ringo and Zingo, recur. They’re seemingly harmless, and in one scene, they attack Zuzu, one of the Palestinians who’s helping Nili and Broshi on the dig, and accuse him of being a collaborator; for all their elaborate moves, however, beefy Zuzu swats them away easily. It’s a way for Modan to show Isis as a distinctly marginal, even mockable, element within Arab society. Later we do get a glimpse of their menace, but it’s still played for laughs; they capture an archaeologist, Rafi, the one out and out villain of the piece, and their Isis schtick has to be aborted. No time to shoot a video, and then the decapitation doesn’t go to plan: ‘What’s this? He still has a head?’ ‘He converted right there under me! I didn’t know what to do!’ (263).

© Rutu Modan

The ending of the novel reveals Rafi’s fate, and something of the buoyancy of the rest of the story leaks away, but one gorgeously comic detail mitigates the potential bleakness of the scene. It’s an ISIS camp somewhere in the desert and Rafi, characteristically peevish, is drinking his soft drink fussily through a straw. It’s this kind of detail that graphic novels can communicate so well – easily missed in a film, but here we have time to relish them. The comparison with film is interesting given Modan’s use of actors when creating the final panels from her storyboard, a collaborative process which allows her to develop the characters further (she lists the actors’ names in the ‘Credits’ at the back of the book). Jason Lutes notices the significance of this aspect of her process: a close attention to ‘actual human beings’ and how they communicate with each other that manifests in the extraordinarily ‘distinctive personalities’ of her characters.

Despite the bleak implications of the final scene, it is a happy ending for most of the characters, and in her epilogue, Modan acknowledges that this is perhaps not the most ‘sober and realistic ending to the story’, which would instead ‘have had the Palestinians and the Israelis murdering each other in argument over ownership…’. Certainly happy endings tend to be a critical embarrassment, equated as they are with ‘fantasy and escapism and wishful thinking’ (MacDowell, 131), but a broadly optimistic ending is surely necessary here in countering the narratives of trauma and despair that are otherwise so dominant.

Lutes, Jason. ‘“It Can Be a Wild Story, but Everything Has to Feel Real.” A Conversation With Graphic Novelist Rutu Modan’, Literary Hub, 22 December 2021,

MacDowell, James, Happy Endings in Hollywood Cinema, Cliché, Convention and the Final Couple. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press; 2013.

Emma Sullivan 2022.

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