HARVILL SECKER £10 (88PP) £9 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897
Machine, by Peter Adolphsen, trans Charlotte Barslund
An oil pipeline into the distant past
Friday 09 May 2008
'Death exists, but only in a practical, microscopic sense. Biologically one cannot distinguish between life and death; the transition is a continuum." Surveying this continuum will make our customary ways of treating events and lives as separate entities seem like deceitful artifices: evasions of frightening facts of existence.
Travel back to the Early Eocene epoch (c.54 million years ago) and follow a young female Eohippus, a nine-inch-high horse, as she dodges predators and encounters unstable terrain. Watch her as, confused, she topples into a muddy lake. Allow millions of years to pass; "the patient micrometres of sediments became kilometres of strata" on top of her heart, and eventually her remains convert into oil. Viewed rightly, one potent drop of oil in the modern world will show as the direct descendant of an organ from a being alive in an all-but-unimaginably distant period.
The Danish writer Peter Adolphsen's evocation of his Eohippus has extraordinary feeling and beauty. We bear her in mind throughout his taut, intelligent, continually arresting short novel. But his main focus is on that long-pedigreed drop of oil which combusts in a car in Austin, Texas, at "7.59pm on the 23rd of June 1975". In that car are a young man – Jimmy Nash, though in his native Baku he was Djamolidine Hasanov – and Clarissa Sanders, a second-year biology student at the University of Texas. Earlier, Clarissa had stopped her Ford Pinto to give Jimmy a ride and, though he had lost an arm in an accident also attributable to oil, it was he who took the wheel.
Adolphsen's portrait of the fated couple is brilliant, a profoundly convincing paradigm of the Western mind-set trying to grapple with life (how best to fulfil oneself in it) and death (how to confront its manifestations). Growing up in a multi-lingual family in the Soviet Union, Djamolidine was a bicycle-racing devotee until he realised he would never become a champion. Frustrated, he escaped via Iran to America, to re-evaluate in its monolingualism both himself and existence, but also, ironically, to work in oil, just as he had done in Baku. He sampled American panaceas for identity-confusion and boredom – pulp fiction, cod-science, the open road, haiku, LSD – while retaining vestiges of his obstinate Azerbaijani self. Clarissa is more sceptical, trusting in biology as the key to the future. Her we will glimpse, 30 years after the convergence of their ways.
The author's purpose is to reveal the vastness and complexity that is the context for any random-seeming convergence. His triumph is to endow his apparently insignificant one with a moving significance.
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lucy Hawking: Stephen Hawking's daughter writes impassioned open letter to Katie Hopkins about rights of disabled people
- 2 #NotGuilty: Second Oxford student writes of brutal rape by two men who then threw her in a bin as part of campaign against victim blaming
- 3 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 4 Oxygen-starved 'dead zones' with no marine life up to 100-miles long discovered in the Atlantic Ocean
- 5 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils