Title: Dolly City
Author: Orly Castel-Bloom
Translator: Dayla Bilu
Published: 1992- first US edition 2010
Did I just read?
To be honest I’m still not entirely sure. Dolly City is, in my humble opinion, a new definition of weird- and like the translated works before it, one has to wonder if it was the author’s intent or the translator’s madness that brought it to be the manuscript I read. We’ll get to that. First, let me introduce you to Orly Castel-Bloom. She is an Israli author and an Egyptian Jew, born and raised in Tel Aviv. If you’re like me, then all you know about Tel Aviv you learned from Ziva-centered episodes of NCIS. Orly (and yes, her name looks like the abbreviation for ‘oh really’, yuk it up now) would have you know far more about her city than anyone, be they Arab or Jewish, even considered before.
The book itself follows Doctor Dolly, a woman whose medical education in Katmandu sets her up in a lab with lots of small bunnies, sharp implements, and free time. When Dolly finds a baby in a trash bag, she decides to adopt it.
There is no logical way to guide you through this book. It is a myriad of questions and answers in the center of a circle of violence. Is Dolly really a doctor? Is Dolly City a real place or one she makes up? Does her child really bear all the scars of invasive surgery, or was that in her head too?Really, it’s as good, and arguably as bad, as any Thomas Pynchon novel. The wonder here being that while the convoluted and possibly hallucinatory storyline has been played to death in English, there’s a whole new world of it in Israel.
Dolly City was translated by the Dalkey Archive, in an attempt to bring more Hebrew literature to other cultures. I’m not sure this is the kind of literature most of the older Jews meant. I did some reading on Castel-Bloom and she’s pretty controversial. You’d have to be, I suppose, to write a book about a woman who actively murders people for not giving her discounts or telling her something she doesn’t want to hear. The important thing is that even in translation Dolly City gets across what I feel, leaving behind all pompous fuckery of the literati in any country, is the point of the book:
Israel is a mother who would rather kill her children than let them live without her.
Dolly City is marked with violence- both ridiculously cartoony (hanging a rat over a man’s face to gnaw his eyes out) and blandly tragic (Dolly’s murder of a wing of german orphans seeking a kidney for her son.) The thing that links all of these together is their connection to interpersonal relationships. Throughout Dolly City, acts of carnage are committed for or because of someone Dolly knows or loves. It is the story of a true Jewish mother.
It is hard to accept Dolly as the protagonist. Readers generally like their leading man or woman to be clear cut- evil or good, rich or poor. Is that always the case? Oh no. The development of the protagonist into something beyond what they were at the beginning is the pleasure of reading. The problem is that you can’t be sure whether you should root for or against Dolly. She is oddly persuasive. Of course it makes sense for her to threaten a flight attendant. The woman might know something about her son that she doesn’t. Why shouldn’t she throw someone out a window? They’re obviously a threat.
I feel like there might be an allegory for the adopted child in this book. You might have to squint, but it’s there. Dolly’s main motivation is discovering who might be the grandfather of her child, if only to destroy him. If she does this, then the boy is hers, forever. I’m not adopted and so can’t speak to the relationship between parent and adopted child. I do know a symbol when I see it, though.
To really understand Dolly City, it has been said that the novel must be read more than once. I am in complete agreement. What I give you right now is all surface- things I got from the very first reading. I suspect I’ll be returning to the book often. You should, too. Dolly City is the kind of place everyone should visit, though god forbid they live there.