Gentle satire from Tel Aviv to Sheffield

'Jamilti' presents best as an exercise in appreciating the development of Modan's talents.

Jamilti book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jamilti book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jamilti and Other Stories By Rutu Modan Jonathan Cape 176 pp., $19.95 First published in 2007, Rutu Modan's best-seller Exit Wounds introduced the English-speaking world to the preternatural talents of the Tel Aviv-born illustrator and writer. Already well-known here - Modan is a mainstay of the popular Actus Tragicus comic imprint - her debut graphic novel, an existential narrative of a young man searching for his father, garnered multiple awards and commendations internationally, including a prestigious Eisner Award. Oddly enough, Exit Wounds was not available in Hebrew until late last year - it was originally written in English. Now, the process has been reversed, with the publication of Jamilti and Other Stories, a collection of her earlier work originally published in Hebrew and translated into English for the first time. Perhaps Jamilti presents best as an exercise in appreciating the development of Modan's talents as an illustrator and storyteller. Spanning a decade - the oldest of the stories was originally published in 1998, the most recent last year - one feels that it is possible to chart the evolution of her capacity to manipulate the genre, especially the tools of the illustrator with which she conveys, effectively, the underlying sentiment of her short tales. In the earlier stories - "Jamilti," about a nurse whom is inadvertently caught up in a Tel Aviv suicide bombing, and "Bygone," a poignant vignette about memory, loss and deception - her illustrations are willfully exaggerated approximations of the human form. Heads are elongated, limbs improbably distended. Nonetheless, her figures maintain the ability to add volume to the stories - a sneer here, a gesture there, the grace with which they complement the narrative belied by their visual clumsiness. The stories themselves share a dry, mordant wit. Loosely, they read more as observational pieces than fully formed and neatly packaged stories with distinct beginnings and endings. They are much like life itself, one might suggest, and perhaps Modan's gentle satire can be interpreted as her informed comment on the world as she sees it. Certainly, even in the more improbable of the stories, like "The Panty Killer" - a serial killer roaming the streets of Tel Aviv, gracing victims with underpants draped over their head - one perceives a wistfulness, a melancholy perhaps tapping deeper into the unconscious than immediately evident. The most fully formed story in the collection is the last and most recently penned. "Your Number One Fan" follows an Israeli called Shabtai who dreams of making it big in the music scene, to Sheffield - where incidentally Modan, "much to her surprise" presently lives - where he has been invited to take part in an event. Ignoring overwhelming evidence to the contrary ("FYI, Sheffield is the home town to Joe Cocker," he snaps at his sceptical girlfriend), he convinces himself that it is the first rung on the ladder to fame and fortune. Of course it is no such thing. His hostess is a petit bourgeois philo-Semite most certainly lacking the musical connections that Shabtai imagines her to possess; the showcase itself is at the local Jewish community center. "You never told me it was a Jewish community center," he snaps at her. "Why," she replies, bemused. "You got something against Jews?" A complicated construct featuring Israel's ambiguous relationship with the Diaspora and old school provincialism about making it big abroad is distilled bitingly into three comic panels; this, as much as anything else in the collection, highlights Modan's talents as well as the effectiveness of the comic book medium for storytelling when wielded in the right hands.