Translated from the Italian by J Ockenden
Snow, Dog, Foot is published here in the UK by Peirene Press. I like the USP of Peirene, a “boutique” publisher of contemporary, high-quality European literature. They also offer a subscription service, which provides readers with three novellas a year, on a loose theme. Snow, Dog, Foot forms part of 2020’s “Closed Universe” series (prior to that the theme was “There Be Monsters”, and I have a copy of Virve Sammalkorpi’s Children of the Cave on my heaving shelf of books waiting to be read).
I was new to Claudio Morandini, although Snow, Dog, Foot (originally published in 2015 as Neve, cane, piede) is his sixth novel. The book was a bestseller in Italy, and a recipient of the Procida-Isola di Arturo-Elsa Morante Prize for fiction and poetry.
When I saw that the story involved the somewhat leftfield relationship between an old man and a dog, I was reminded of the premise of the blackly humorous book Timoleon Vieta Comes Home by Dan Rhodes, which I read many years ago and loved. Nevertheless, I was also immediately primed for the potential for untenable levels of whimsy.
Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised at how very enjoyable this beautifully translated novel is. The elderly and misanthropic Adelmo Farandola lives alone on an inhospitable Alpine mountainside, and each winter snows himself in with the barest of supplies, while year-round he avoids contact with others except when it is absolutely necessary (for example in order to restock his store of provisions).
The old man’s memory is poor, and his grip on reality fluctuates; maybe he is demented. Inadvertently, and not a little reluctantly, he acquires a stray dog:
“But he’s got attached to the mongrel, and when he goes away it feels as though something inside him has died a little, and time slows down until it seems to stop altogether, and the narrow valley expands until it becomes an immense desert, and he shrinks inside this desert until he’s no bigger than an ant or a worm. A mere dog can reduce him to this. God knows what effect a human being would have. Just imagine, purely hypothetically, what effect a woman would have.“
He begins to talk to the dog, who (more surprisingly) seems to talk back, saying very doggish things, interspersed with the occasional unexpected soliloquy. Meanwhile, a local ranger is displaying an unwelcome interest in Adelmo. The dog often works as a sort of alter ego, reflecting back at Adelmo his determination to survive the harsh winter, and the seasonal routines of the old man’s life acquire a kind of perverse logic as you are drawn into his world. However, as the welcome thaw approaches, Adelmo and the dog discover a human foot, creating a new, seemingly implacable challenge to their peaceful, if life-threateningly harsh, existence.
Snow, Dog, Foot is a book that is difficult to categorise. In one way it is a survival story, and in another a mystery. It is sometimes very dark, and often very witty, while Adelmo’s occasional flashes of youthful memory hint at a normal childhood, and the enduring effects of war-time trauma. The book contains wonderfully evocative descriptive passages about the snow and the natural environment, and the prose is lyrical and elemental and visceral. Overall, Snow, Dog, Foot is a charming, tragi-comic tale that I can recommend unreservedly.