Orly Castel-Bloom’s “Dolly City”

Reviewed by Mythili G. Rao

Image of Orly Castel-Bloom’s “Dolly City”

In Dolly City, “the most demented city in the world,” all the cars are Volkswagen Beetles, and all the trains lead to Dachau (“Not that Dachau, just some old plank with the name Dachau written on it, a kind of memorial”).  It’s a city of “chaos and ugliness,” a hostile, filthy, friendless place.  “Sometimes, even in Dolly City, I feel like a stranger,” Doctor Dolly, the protagonist of Orly Castel-Bloom’s 1992 novel reflects.  “I want to go home—even though this is my home.” 

Dolly City follows the trials of Doctor Dolly, a perceptive but deranged graduate of Kathmandu University. She lives alone in a 400-story apartment building, where she conducts heartless experiments on animals in her home laboratory. She leads a cold-blooded existence but is nonetheless overcome with grief when her pet goldfish and dog die. Then, Doctor Dolly commits murder, a little more than a dozen pages into this dystopian novel.  But on the same page that she puts out a life (bludgeoning her dog’s gravedigger in a fit of rage) she saves one: In a black plastic bag in the trunk of the gravedigger’s car, Doctor Dolly finds an infant.

What begins as grim compassion for the newborn (“I said to myself, with children it’s no joke, you don’t take risks”) soon blooms into a full-blown obsession.  Dolly convinces herself her son will fall ill with a rare disease and so vaccinates the infant against tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria, polio, measles, jaundice, scarlet fever, small pox and influenza– all at once.  She gives him a fever; she brings down the fever; she sedates him; she operates on him. She operates on him again. And again. “My concern for his health knew no bounds,” she says.  “It was voracious, it was grotesque.”  Eventually, she sets her sights farther; “the metastases were taking over the world,” she decides.  Doctor Dolly begins carrying a syringe of morphine and injecting passersby. She injects car tires, mops and pails, too.  She knows she is succumbing to madness but carries on.  Before long, Doctor Dolly finds herself in an insane asylum.

To call Dolly’s world macabre is an understatement. She tortures an airline employee in her apartment while her baby sleeps, murders a slew of infants in a German orphanage in order to give her child a (superfluous) kidney transplant, and castrates a psychiatrist whose diagnosis she dislikes.  It’s shocking and gruesome, but, as captured in the sly, unadorned prose of Dalya Bilu’s translation, it’s all very cartoonish too; physical violence in Dolly City is an obvious vehicle for the book’s exploration of psychic trauma.  It’s hard to put a fine point on the origin and parameters of that trauma, however. Whether the novel is primarily a story of motherhood or of mental illness rests on one’s definition of each.  Is Doctor Dolly simply acting out a grossly distorted version of motherly concern, or does Castel-Bloom mean to suggest, through Dolly’s excesses, that maternal impulses themselves are diseased? Dolly may be the ultimate overbearing Jewish mother, but this seems to be a just a minor flourish.  Her motherhood – which she comes into accidentally, even violently – is in so many ways just another symptom of the larger malaise of her geography.  Who can give their son a happy childhood in a place like Dolly City?

It’s a political and philosophical question as much as a literary one; on top of everything else, Dolly City is rumination on Israeli history and Jewish identity.  Central to the plot is Dolly’s shifting relationship with Pan-T, the Israeli national airlines which employed her father and which she sees alternately as her tormenter and benefactor.  Even more explicitly, in one of Doctor Dolly’s early surgical fits, she carves a map of Israel onto her son’s back.  The child grows into a strong sensible, teenager, despite his mother’s torments; as he  enters manhood, the map is still visible on his back, “amazingly accurate and up to date”– but it has returned to the 1967 borders, without the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.  Dolly is astonished.  “Yes, that’s the generation gap for you,” she thinks.

In the English edition’s afterword, Karen Grumberg notes that “the centrality of Dolly City in the world of Israeli letters is undisputed.” Even in translation, the novel’s force is undeniable. Dolly herself may be consumed with provincial concerns (“There were rare moments when I would try with all my might and main to feel part of a world far wider than Dolly City, but it was almost impossible. I was my own prisoner”) but this is much more than a regional work. In its lucid expression of confinement and estrangement, Dolly City is a searing, comic critique of modernity that, incredibly, manages to leave open the possibility of redemption.