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A Cut Above

Orly Castel-Bloom’s Dolly City is the most important Israeli novel of the last four decades

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Orly Castel-Bloom. (Illustration: Tablet Magazine; photo: Michal Revivo, courtesy Dalkey Archive)

Dolly City, the influential novel by Israeli author Orly Castel-Bloom—originally published in 1992 and released this month in a superb English translation by Dalya Bilu—begins with a cocker spaniel. The dog, aged and ill, is put to sleep, and its corpse is driven to the dunes outside town where it is stabbed and beheaded by a demented gravedigger. It is, by far, the book’s most tender moment.

What follows, largely unencumbered by the burdens of plot, is the story of Dolly, a psychotic doctor who finds an abandoned baby and then—driven by love, guilt, anxiety and all the other emotional foundations on which the mythical figure of the Jewish mother proudly stands—proceeds to torture him and others in hilarious and heartbreaking ways.

Such villainy, naturally, requires its own lair, which Dolly has in Dolly City, her apartment in an impossibly tall high-rise in the center of a barely recognizable Israel. A lick of language is enough to ascertain that by entering Dolly City, one has left behind all that is safe and familiar. Consider the following stretch, in which Dolly wonders what to name her newfound toddler: “I lay down on my giant bed and watched the TV shows picked up by the satellite dishes on the roof, smoking like a chimney as I did so. For a moment I caught myself whistling for the dog, and a string snapped in my body, C sharp, then I closed my eyes, and decided to call him Son, so that if anyone ever called him a son of a bitch, he’d take it personally and beat them up for the both of us.” In one breathless muttering, Castel-Bloom welds together the banal (those satellite dishes on the roof), the clichéd (smoking like a chimney), the deeply personal (the specific notation of the sentimental string that is snapped at the memory of the departed dog), the absurd (a son named Son), and the profane (Son being called a son of a bitch).

These are fine ingredients for literature, but Castel-Bloom’s aims are far above the merely aesthetic: Her Dolly City looks nothing like Israel, and yet it is probably the most emotionally honest portrait of the Jewish state produced in the past four decades. Just compare Dolly City to, say, Amos Oz’s Jerusalem: The eminence grise of Hebrew letters helped solidify his status with somber novels such as My Michael, in which the heroine, Hannah Gonen, fantasizes about being ravished by a pair of Arab twins with whom she played as a child. Oz’s landscape is all internal, psychic space, and his imaginary sex scene reads like softcore porn directed by Ingmar Bergman—tortured, overwrought, and ridiculous.

Castel-Bloom, on the other hand, has no need for grand psychological devices. On the subject of Arabs, as on any other subject, she gets straight to the point. “I discovered a new type of phobia in Dolly City—Arabophobia, fear of Arabs,” she writes. “I once read somewhere that you should tackle fear head-on. Fuck Arabs, if you’re afraid of them. You fuck them—and you see that the devil’s not as black as he’s painted, they’re just like everybody else.”

Such deceptively simple riffs do more than just shatter Israeli literature’s penchant for the metaphorical—all those family quibbles serving as the national drama writ small. It also takes a simple and courageous stand in support of normal life: If only you saw them without their clothes on, you’d understand that Arabs, just like anyone else, are ordinary people, not some symbolic stand-in for otherness and the complexity of life in a conflict zone.

This may sound like an obvious proclamation; in the ideologically charged vista that is Israel’s literary landscape, it is not. While in America narratives of romantic relationships between whites and Indians were common throughout the 18th and 19th centuries—the literary historian Werner Sollors called it the “red-white fusion”—Israeli literature had scrupulously avoided any mention of the possibility of real romance between Jews and Arabs. There could never be a Palestinian Pocahontas; whatever interactions the two peoples had were confined to fighting, fucking, or other forms of dominance. In one tart paragraph, Castel-Bloom presents a real alternative, filthy and sexy and inspired and eminently human. Life, she proposes daringly, could be just life again.

The same is true for nearly every word in this short and magical book. Even as the plot spirals from one horror to another—here’s Dolly using a rope and a rat to slowly drain the life out of an airline executive, and there she is with a scalpel and rampant bloodlust in some run-down German orphanage—the novel’s overall spirit is one of deep-seated humanism. In a society so heavily encumbered by the weight of war and remembrance, Castel-Bloom insists, the only decent form of exorcism is shamanic, absurdist, disturbing, but, ultimately, cleansing. Whether we read the book as a meditation on motherhood—and it is, I believe, one of the most inspired explorations of the topic ever written—as an excavation of the roots of the collective Israeli psyche, or as a bit of both, we’re bound to feel immensely relieved when setting free our gnawing fears and howling anxieties; seeing the beasts run wild makes them less scary.

In her particular style—melding the concrete and the absurd, the terrible and the funny, the hopeful and the grim—Castel-Bloom recalls another masterful bard of modernity and its complexities, the French writer Boris Vian. Now largely forgotten, Vian wrote works that were at once real and surreal; his stories, rooted in seemingly senseless settings, unfurled to reveal a hard ground of empathy and compassion in which human relationships could blossom even in the most inclement conditions. Castel-Bloom has mastered the same difficult trick.

Of course, anything that’s truly profound and radical is likely to stir up its share of resentment, and Castel-Bloom is no exception. When she first emerged as a new voice in the hushed halls of Israeli literature, she was slapped with the derogatory label of being a practitioner of “thin language;” in Castel-Bloom’s apoplectic prose, in her humor and her warmth, the dons of culture saw little of merit. I myself was temporarily ejected from my perch as a counselor in a youth movement when, at 16, I shared with my peers the scene in which Dolly slices open a few dozen German orphans to find a suitable kidney for her kid. Here’s how the scene ends: Returning home to Dolly City, Dolly realizes that her child never needed the kidney to begin with. Melancholy, she stares out of her apartment’s window.

“I looked out the window,” Castel-Bloom writes, “but how long can you go on looking out of the window at rushing trains? Especially when they’re rushing to where these trains were rushing. All the trains in Dolly City rushed to Dachau and back again. Not that Dachau, just some old plank with the name Dachau written on it, a kind of memorial.”

This, Castel-Bloom cheerfully reminds us, is what happens when mythology is abused, when icons turn hollow, when the politics of fear rots the meaning out of life. When that happens, the only sane solution is to grab that knife, move to the 37th floor of a skyscraper, and reinvent the world as a more uninhibited, madder, better place.

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Independent critical thought must be applauded, together with, in this case,a swimming upstream take on modern Israeli literature.This critique while independent drowns in its contrariness and deserves catcalls instead of applause.

A very intelligent consideration of a neglected work that warrants all the attention that Leibovitz says it does. This appreciation does a fine job of identifying this powerful and disturbing novel’s enduring relevance for considering the Israeli condition. The only unfortunate moment is its unworthy slur and injudicious comparison to a novel from a very different era. If “Dolly City” warrants fresh discovery by new readers, then Oz’ novel “My Michael” is a true, enduring classic. Either Leibovitz hasn’t read it in many years or has simply not understood its richly textured psychological, cultural, and gendered politics–it’s an astonishing work that readers will argue over, learn from, and be profoundly stirred by and it bears rereading as much as “Dolly City.”

brynababy says:

After reading this review, I will make sure never to read Ms. Castel-Bloom’s book.

margy n says:

thanks for the review as I now will know to keep that book off my library list. I cannot find anything entertaining in all that mayhem!



yael dayan says:

It is indeed not a pleasant book to read,neither is our reality.We are the ostriches of the post Holocaust period and we do not like,since 1967,to look at ourselves as other than victims.Castel Bloom’s novel should be read with an ironic wise attitude,as we can change our Dolly City predicament only I am not sure we want to…

shualah elisheva says:

reminiscent, in some ways, of christopher durang’s “baby with the bathwater.”

Shachar says:

מר לייבוביץ’, הגזמת!

“Dolly City” is a great and even important novel, but to call it “the most important Israeli novel of the last four decades” is what we call in Hebrew הגזמה פראית – a wild exaggeration. The comparison between “Dolly City” and “My Michael” is, to my mind, not relevant. You should compare it to its true predecessor Ya’acov Shabtai’s “Past Continuous” – a true masterpiece (also translated by Dalia Bilu).

M. Brukhes says:

Theodor Adorno once wrote an essay called “Bach Defended Against His Devotees”; one is tempted to contemplate an essay titled “Orly Castel-Bloom Defended Against Liel Leibovitz.” Both she and Amos Oz deserve better than this article….

Shalom Freedman says:

This is a ridiculous exaggerated and even ugly little review. To compare Castel- Bloom to Oz is simply to have no feel for the Hebrew language, and no sense of creation of character in Literature is all about. There are tens of other Israeli novelists and novels which rank beyond this one, including those of Amos Oz and David Grossman, among many others.

Pnina Baker says:

Within a few sentences of this review I, too, was sure that I will never crack this book open. Sounds appalling.

I have to say, as someone who reads Israeli novels in Hebrew, that this is a completely absurd article and I’m surprised at Tablet for publishing it.

I have loved Orly Castel-Bloom and Dolly City since discovering both in an Israeli Literature class in college. It *is* difficult to absorb, and in many ways that is the point. Leibovitz is right, and to the nay-sayers, I assure you it is well worth a read, and a re-read, even if in your mind it never compares to those most special and revered boys of Israeli fiction.

Miha Ahronovitz says:

If you try, as I did, to watch the short surrealistic movie
‘Le chien andalou” made by Louis Bunuel and Salvador Dali in Spain, and you can stand still at the short scene when an eye is cut with shaving knife with macro precision, then you can read Orly Castel-Bloom as easy as Marquis de Sade. But, wait a moment. This is an Israeli masterpiece. We have soldiers on trial for killing innocent people, as Americans do. We have prostitutes, rabbis who write books saying it is OK to kill non-Jews if necessary, etc. We have corruption, and in strange way Zionist pride called this a normality. We have our country just like nationalistic Europe, with police, prisons, crimes, and now, with books like Dolly City.

My question is: if the is the greatest Israeli book in the last 40 years, which is the even greater book published in Israel before 1970? Which Israeli novel is #1?

Fabiana Heifetz says:

After Yaakov Shabtai’s novels and stories there seemed to be no real writer to sepak of in the realm of Hebrew letters until Orly Castel Bloom managed to create a new valuable mirror for those who are not inclined to avoid the unpleasant features of Israel’s semblance. So unpleasant, in fact, that towards the end of the book one finds oneself wondering whether a desire for wisdom, beauty, perhaps even love,may not be the most subversive elementin the novel

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I’ve said that least 3667035 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean


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A Cut Above

Orly Castel-Bloom’s Dolly City is the most important Israeli novel of the last four decades

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