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Peter Adolphsen: Machine (Machine)

The hero, if that is the right word, of this novel is an oil molecule but don’t let that you put you off. Also don’t let the fact that this is a short novel but, nevertheless has a time span of some fifty-five million years put you off.

Essentially, we follow an oil molecule from how it is created till what we might call, for want of a better word, its death and the effect it has on the lives of various people, both directly but also because something happens to them when the oil is being created, transported or used.

The author does tell us all of this at the beginning of the novel. Indeed, at the start of the novel he starts, albeit briefly, with the Big Bang, thereby extending the time span of the novel to some 13.8 billion years, which must make it the novel with one of the longest time spans ever, comparable, in that respect, to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

However, Big Bang apart, we essentially start with a five-year old Eohippus mare in the early Eocene, some fifty-five million years ago. She is drinking at a lake when a major thunderstorm frightens her and her fellow horses. We do follow her adventures briefly but she will die and it is her heart that will form the oil molecule many millions of year later.

Adolphsen is not a scientist but clearly has studied science and, in many cases, gives us a precise scientific description – biological, physical, chemical, neurological and so on – of what exactly is happening, e.g. in the mare’s brain when she is frightened by the storm or in the decomposition of her heart and its transformation into an oil molecule or more precisely, a vast amount of hydrocarbon bonds, variations on the basal structure C(x)H(2x+2).

Where this happen is what we now know as Utah, specifically near the town of Jensen. However, we next meet Djamolidine Hasanov, a Kumyk, living in Baku in the Azerbaijani SSR in the Soviet Union. His father is an oil worker. We follow the story of young Djamolidine and how he eventually manages to escape from the Soviet Union and get to the United States, where he gets a job at the oil extraction area near Jensen, changing his name to Jimmy Nash.

He gets interested in poetry, Kenneth Rexroth’s poems from Chinese and Japanese being a particular favourite and, just to show that Adolphsen has a sense of humour, he also likes Seymour Glass. Glass is, of course, J D Salinger’s fictitious poet.

Jimmy is operating the oil extraction system when our oil molecule rises to the surface but things do not work out for him (but not because of the oil molecule).

We next meet Clarissa Sanders, a young woman who drives a Pinto, giving Adolphsen opportunity to expound on the Pinto exploding fuel tank problem.

Clarissa, of course, fills up her car with the molecule now converted to petrol. She also picks up a hitch-hiker – Jimmy – and we learn that the molecule has one more role to play in her life. She comments When I was a child I used to imagine that if aliens were watching the earth from outer space they would think that the planet was ruled by a strange species called cars. And, perhaps more surprisingly, the book ends with our Eohippus.

Given how short it is, this book is a wonderfully inventive book full of fascinating ideas and explanations. As well as the Pinto affair, we learn about trepanation, Mormons, mole-rats, Native Americans, LSD (the drug) and the collapse of empires. We also learn a lot of science which is explained succinctly but, nevertheless informatively.

If someone had said to me that I would enjoy a book where an oil molecule is the main character, I would have questioned their advice. However, this book is very clever, very original, witty and a joy to read.

Publishing history

First published 2006 by Samleren
First published in English in 2007 by MacAdam/Cage
Translator: Charlotte Barslund