The story of the Israeli-Palestinian war is rarely told with much economy. The question of where to start can be a stumbling block. 1917? 1948? 1967? But the Israeli graphic novelist Rutu Modan managed to grasp what often gets left out entirely — the emotional truth — and did so in a simple 11-page comic.
“Jamilti,” first published in 2003, begins with a woman and her boorish fiancé fighting over his refusal to participate in wedding preparations. Soon they’re in a taxi, and the fiancé is commiserating with the driver, who — and this is not atypical for Israel — is assuming the role of the country’s prime minister: “We should just bomb them all to hell.” The woman, disgusted, demands to be let out. As she closes the door, a nearby cafe explodes with fire and glass. She runs toward the explosion, where she is met with a terrible sight. A man lies in a pool with his own blood, his legs torn off. She takes off her hairtie and makes a tourniquet. Then she gently cradles him. She performs mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, though in Modan’s close-up it appears more like a passionate kiss. The man opens his eyes and says one word, “Jamilti.” By the next page the woman is sitting at home with her shirtless fiancé when she learns from the television that the dying man was actually the suicide bomber. “What does ‘Jamilti’ mean?” she asks. “My beautiful one,” her fiancé tells her. We look at each other as we tighten our jaws and she sips her coffee. Then they talk about their wedding plans.
What is that kiss? A form of codependency that has grown out of hatred. The corruption of everything, even love, through violence. The stupidity of ideology and politics versus seeing a dying friend. The whole bloody conflict.
Modan began comics in the 1990s. She was almost the sole person to bring the form to Israel where Tintin and Superman are strangers. At one time, she was editor of Mad magazine in Hebrew. Her three graphic novels, which include her most recent, are all available online. TUNNELS (Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95), out this month, have all been published in English and have established her as her country’s most renowned comics artist.
The New York Times Book Review is available.
Do you want to keep up with all the latest books? This is a great place to start.
“Jamilti” was a turning point for Modan. She previously refused to depict the particularity of Israeli reality. She was born in 1966 and is part of a post Six Day War generation. Her Tel Aviv cohort has moved far away from the unquestioning Zionist fervor her grandparents and parents displayed. “I love Israel and I also hate Israel,” she said in a 2013 interview.
All Israeli artists confront a burden of expectation that their work must not only address politics, but also contain some kind of answer key to the country’s existential dilemmas. This expectation can lead to both creativity and propaganda, but it can also be a death knell for artists. The greatest of Israel’s writers have found ways out of this trap, and revealed their greatness in the process. Modan is also guilty of this.
Her first work of full-length. EXIT WOUNDS (Drawn & Quarterly, paper, $19.95), remains her most affecting. It is brightly colored, perfectly paced, and just like all her comics. Modan’s books often read like mystery novels, filled with strange characters and missing people and a protagonist — always an awkward but determined woman — on some kind of quest. “Exit Wounds” unfolds after a suicide bombing in a bus station. One of the victims has remained unidentified, and a tall young woman named Numi (nicknamed “the Giraffe”) is convinced that it is her older, secret lover who died. She finds his estranged son, Koby, a surly taxi driver, and the two commence an investigation of sorts — an uncomfortable one, as he hates his neglectful father and she is grieving her loss. As they search for clues, they travel to different parts of the country and deepen their relationship.
The story is dark but Modan’s palette resembles a bag of Skittles. Her people have the pleasing cartoonishness of Hergé’s characters — when they shed tears, they appear as waterfalls cascading down their round cheeks — and her pages follow his ligne claire style. Each panel is full of movement, which has at least partly to do with an unusual process she has developed for her graphic novels: She “casts” actors whom she photographs playing out the story and then uses the images as a basis for her drawings.
It would be a distraction to locate the Israeliness of Modan’s books in their settings — in the suicide bombings and cursing taxi drivers. Rather, it’s in their recurring themes: missing fathers, the search for a sense of self, inherited trauma. These are of course universal concerns, but they ping-pong aggressively in such an unsettled country, one that doesn’t even have clear borders. The same preoccupations show up as well in Modan’s second book, THE PROPERTY (Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95), the story of a woman who makes a trip to Poland with her grandmother to see about recovering the family’s apartment building, lost during the war. Wandering Warsaw’s hotels and city streets, the protagonist, like Numi and Koby in “Exit Wounds,” is looking to reconstitute herself, to find the pieces of her family’s identity that history swallowed up.
“Tunnels,” Modan’s newest book, is also her most overtly political, though at first it doesn’t appear so. We meet another agitated adventurer, a latter-day Indiana Jones with khakis and tousled black hair named Nili, the daughter of a famous archaeologist intent on finishing her father’s greatest expedition: finding the ark of the covenant. It’s going to be a “treasure hunt,” she tells her young son. Modan tells us to visually smash into the gray concrete slabs of the separation wall that runs through the occupied Palestinian territory. Nili must dig to find the possible site of an ark, as indicated in an ancient inscription.
Modan never stops being entertaining and drawing on genre — in this case, an absurd “Seven Samurai” plot — as Nili pulls together a motley crew for the job, including a bunch of goofy young settlers and a Palestinian man named Mahdi whom she met on childhood digs with her father. There are conflicts and subplots (including another kiss, a subversive one underground between Mahdi and Nili’s brother), and though the idea of a group of people who all want to lay claim to the same land — who bore through the earth together with pickaxes and shovels — might seem heavy-handed, Modan brings a lightness to it and escapes, as usual, any didacticism.
Everyone has a reason why they want to take part in the dig. The settlers want the ark to be found so that their holy powers may aid them in defeating their enemies. Mahdi is trying smuggle goods back into the territories from the other side. Nili is mainly motivated by revenge for her father, whose discoveries were stolen, and to bring him glory before his death. It’s a mix of motives that leads to near disaster, but also shows the ways Modan understands her part of the world: a place that must learn to better live with the friction of competing narratives.
“Couldn’t I suggest that we write one story from all the old stories, a story that will be bigger than all combined?” Modan writes in an afterword. “A terrible and wonderful and turbulent story full of holes and contradictions? One that people can live inside.”
Source: NY Times