Filled with intrigue, adventure, and humor, Tunnels tells the story of an Israeli archaeological dig whose participants attempt to search for the biblical Ark of the Covenant; its mysterious whereabouts are currently unknown, but its mystique has given rise to many literary and cinematic imaginings as interested parties intensively search for the celebrated artifact.
In graphic novel format, with color panels filled with sly visual wit, and with a focus on an incisive exploration of human nature, Rutu Modan skewers many of the pretensions and purported truths trumpeted by archaeologists, academicians, antiquities dealers, and collectors as she recounts the story of Nili Brosh, an archaeologist attempting to locate the ark. In part, she wants to do so to rehabilitate the reputation of her elderly, infirm father, also an archaeologist, who lost his bid for academic tenure at the hands of an unscrupulous rival who hopes to garner credit for the spectacular find. Nili’s son, amusingly named Doctor, a young child obsessed with computer games who has his own heroic moment in the story, accompanies her as she searches for the elusive ark. Her less-than-trustworthy academic brother, an antiquities collector whose acquisitive streak is comically extreme, a group of singing and dancing local Jews whose idealism is cynically examined, an Arab smuggler who is an old friend of Nili’s, and a red heifer whose ashes are traditionally required to sanctify the ark, are among the quirky and interesting dramatis personae who help, hinder, and otherwise accompany Nili on her mission to discover the hiding place of the ark.
Controversial Israeli political issues of the day form the underpinning of the story but, although they are vital to its understanding, politics and societal issues do not eclipse the adventure, the characterizations, or the spectacular art that is filled with facial expressions, interesting detail, and overall charm. Some of the larger panels are so filled with action or with historical resonance that those pages seem to be self-contained stories of their own; one notable example is a page depicting the exile of the Jews to Babylon. In other panels, a sense of the Israeli landscape is palpable.
Interesting and unusual, this book presents graphic storytelling at its best.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.