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Machine, by Peter Adolphsen, trans Charlotte Barslund

An oil pipeline into the distant past

Reviewed,Paul Binding
Friday 09 May 2008 00:00 BST

'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.

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