Although Danish author Peter Adolphsen has made a name for himself as a formalist for whom economy is a virtue (to date his five novels and short story collections are less than 300 pages combined), “as a reader,” one reviewer writes, “you feel you have covered a huge distance with him.” Drawing comparisons to Borges and Kafka, Adolphsen has written parables and parodies, “ultrashort biographies,” children’s books, and a collection called En Million Historier (A Million Stories), which allows the reader to construct, well, a million stories, from ten pages of interchangeable two-line segments. Machine, Adolphsen’s second novel to be translated into English, fits very well within this paradigm, spanning millions of years, several continents, the lives of three people, and one drop of gasoline within its brief 85 pages.
The book opens with the untimely death of a prehistoric horse. This end, however, is really the beginning: “Death exists, but only in a practical microscopic sense,” the quirky omniscient narrator intones. “Biologically, one cannot distinguish between life and death; the transition is a continuum.” And so, ever so slowly (over fifty-five million years), the heart of this horse is transformed into a drop of crude oil. Once refined, “our drop” is pumped into the engine of a Ford Pinto. It then combusts, becomes exhaust, and a few hours later, transforms one last time into a carcinogen. And that’s Machine in a nutshell.
Of course, there’s a lot more to it. Ostensibly, this is a novel about unlikely intersections, about the connection between the death of one horse, millions of years ago, and the meeting of two young strangers—a skeptical biology student named Clarissa, and a one-armed, immigrant oil worker from Azerbaijan—on a Utah highway in 1975. Rather than settle for a bland Everything-is-Connected collage, however, Machine reduces everything from characters to biological phenomena to their smallest parts, earliest origins, and most mechanical functions. The narrator, taking the patient tone of a kindly professor giving a physics lecture to English students, deconstructs the process through which organic life-forms decay, fossils become fuel, crude oil is refined, and LSD interacts with serotonin receptors.
Consider the following description of developing cancer:
Cancer is both a slow and fast-moving disease. The second the carcinogenic agent penetrates the healthy cell, it launches a frenzied attack on the double helix of the hereditary genes, but decades can pass before external symptoms manifest themselves. In Clarissa’s case, less than one minute passed from when the soot particles hit the inner surface of the bronchiole to when benzapyrene, the carcinogenic agent, buried itself in a specific epithelium cell where it programmed the death of the cell, apoptosis, thus rendering the cell immortal—that is, transforming it into a cancer cell. However, thirty whole years would pass until she was diagnosed with “metastasized adenocarcinoma (stage III).”
In the presence of these entertaining (and informative) tangents, plot truly ceases to matter. The reader can simply become immersed in the ebb and flow of the narrative, sharing in Machine’s wonderment in the natural world, in the connectivity of living beings and the utterly meticulous and lengthy process of ‘Becoming.’ This is a novel in which God is truly in the details.
A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of
his heart. I’ve never found my country too small, though that isn’t
to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here. . .
The recent reissuing of several of Stig Dagerman’s novels by University of Minnesota Press has rekindled interest in his works, which have until now been little-known outside Sweden. Just twenty-four when he wrote A Burnt Child (here newly translated by. . .
Paul Klee’s Boat, Anzhelina Polonskaya’s newest bilingual collection of poems available in English, is an emotional journey through the bleakest seasons of the human soul, translated with great nuance by Andrew Wachtel. A former professional ice dancer(!), Polonskaya left the. . .
In Seiobo There Below, Lázló Krasznahorkai is able to succeed at a task at which many writers fail: to dedicate an entire novel to a single message, to express an idea over and over again without falling into repetition or. . .
There are curious similarities in three Italian mystery series, written by Maurizio de Giovanni, Andrea Camilleri, and Donna Leon.1
They’re all police procedurals, and all set in Italy: Naples, Sicily, Venice.
The three protagonists are Commissarios: Luigi Ricciardi, Salvo. . .
Poetry always has the feel of mysticism and mystery, or maybe this feeling is a stereotype left over from high school literature class. It is generally the result of confusion, lack of time committed to consuming the poetry, and the. . .
Our Lady of the Flowers, Echoic is not only a translation, but a transformation. It is a translation of Jean Genet’s novel Notre Dame des Fleurs, transmuted from prose to poetry. Originally written in prison as a masturbatory aid (Sartre. . .