Book review: ‘Tunnels’ digs for complicated truth

“Tunnels” by Rutu Modan
“Tunnels” by Rutu Modan, published Nov. 2 by Drawn & Quarterly (Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly)

By Sasha Rogelberg


Rutu Modan

Drawn & Quarterly

In graphic novelist Rutu Modan’s most recent work “Tunnels,” published on Nov. 2 by Drawn & Quarterly, archaeologist Nili is hardly the heroic and striking protagonist Indiana Jones is in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” but their goals are the same: find the Ark of the Covenant, and do it quickly.

The frumpy single mother, followed closely by her first-grader son Doctor, glued to his mother’s iPhone, stumbles upon an inscription to the location of the Ark in the possession of a clueless collector, the catalyst of her quest to avenge her archaeologist father — a man sickened with dementia for the better part of two decades — whose scholarly contributions to the field were wrongly eclipsed.

The task is both daunting and familiar: Finding the Ark would not only save her family name, but it would be a continuation of a dig she began with her father 30 years prior.

In her perpetually worn khakis and blue button-up, accompanied by her apathetic, but easily swayable Doctor, Nili embarks with her humble equipment to the site of the dig, which, coincidentally, lies at the crossroads of Israeli and Palestinian land.

As she approaches the dig site, she is joined by a gaggle of eccentric settlers led by the jolly Gedanken, who is keen on the spiritual rewards promised to whoever finds the Ark (and the claim to the heavily contested land on which it’s found).

Out of nowhere appears her brother Broshi, who is surreptitiously in cahoots with their father’s academic nemesis Rafi Sarid, and later, in the tunnels, childhood acquaintance Mahdi, a Palestinian man, digging a tunnel intersecting Nili’s, in hopes of smuggling vegetables to the other side of the wall dividing the territories.

The more people interested in the tunnels leading to the Ark, the more the meaning of the holy object becomes convoluted, and the more Modan’s colorful “Tin-Tin”-esque comic becomes an ensnaring political allegory, 3,000 years in the making.

The respective motives for the characters’ finding of the Ark — be it glory, vengeance or an ideal bar mitzvah locale — are completely contradictory and, in the end, they don’t matter. Alliances are forged and broken, lives are put at risk and the fate of the ark remains — spoilers — slippery at best.

With smart color work, clean lines and enthralling backdrops, “Tunnels” is crystal clear and consistent stylistically. Its playful drawings, exemplified best by the classic cartoon expressions of hair and eyebrows standing on end to depict a surprised character, pleasantly disrupt the seriousness of the concepts tackled, preventing the reader from growing frustrated with a heated and often-tackled topic of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Modan’s lesson is painted with the same simplicity and clarity with which she draws: everyone’s right; no one’s right; it’s complicated.

On one particularly striking page, Nili and Mahdi, face-to-face at the mouths of their respective tunnels, begin to squabble: “With all due respect, it’s our tunnel,” Mahdi says.

“Maybe this part, but from there on out it’s the tunnel that my dad dug,” Nili retorts.

The quarrel over the tunnel’s rightful digger continues. Mahdi concludes, referring to when the tunneling began several decades prior: “Depends where you start counting.”

Even Modan’s biting satire of the pious settler Gedanken, fixated on and limited by his hatred for Palestinians, is pointed, despite its silliness.

The greatest gift of “Tunnels” is its ability to skirt the line of satire and critique while never explicitly crossing it. In a time when others’ politics are assumed, and honest and vulnerable conversations are few and far between, “Tunnels” offers an easy (or easier) entry-point to conversations around the conflict.

Clearly rooted in today’s day and age, the graphic novel still feels timeless, for better or for worse, a snapshot of scenes throughout history, likely on disputed lands around the globe.

Through her plea for deeper understanding of the land’s fraught history, brought to life by the conflicting core beliefs of two groups of people who ultimately want peace, Modan offers no solace to the reader. But with no questions answered or political solutions proposed, “Tunnels” still remains satisfying in its art and characters.

“In these dark times,” Modan writes in her afterword, “I would happily settle for just the search.”

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