Every year, Peirene Press brings out three short works in translation linked by a common theme, and this year’s selection is the Closed Universe Series. The first of those books, focusing on a woman in self-imposed isolation on an inaccessible Norwegian peninsula, certainly fitted this bill, and today’s choice is a very similar work. Once again, we’ll be spending some time alone with a stranger in the wilderness, steeling ourselves against a harsh winter, but one thing is a little different…
…this time we also have some animal company to keep us warm 😉
Claudio Morandini’s Snow, Dog, Foot (review copy courtesy of the publisher), while kicking off Peirene’s second decade of books, actually represents something of a new beginning. Back in 2018, the press announced the creation of the Peirene Stevns Translation Prize, an initiative aimed at providing an opportunity for an up-and-coming translator to have a book published for the first time. While there was criticism of certain aspects of the prize, particularly of some of the entry rules, I think it’s an excellent idea, and when it was announced that J Ockenden was the winner and would be translating Morandini’s novel, I was keen to check it out.
Snow, Dog, Foot is the story of Adelmo Farandola, an old man living on a mountain outside a remote Italian Alpine village. As the story begins, winter is approaching, and Adelmo uses the last of the fair weather to trudge down to the village and stock up on supplies, hoping they’ll last him through the coming months. Once he makes his way back up to his old cabin, the expectation is that he won’t come back down again until the spring – if at all.
However, what seems to be a fairly straight-forward trip doesn’t go to plan. For one thing, he’s astonished to hear the shopkeeper claim that he stopped by only a short while ago, when he can’t recall having been there for months. Then, on his way back to his remote shelter, he comes across a dog, and despite his best efforts to drive the mutt away, it turns out that the old man now has a companion for the long winter.
To begin with, you might think Morandini’s story is a descriptive piece, a tale of an old, solitary man cutting himself off from society, and on the first journey down to the village, the writer has Farandola showing his suspicion of human contact:
Adelmo Farandola used to go down to the village more often, to hear the band play on high days and holidays. He would lurk behind the walls of the houses and let the music reach him in a confused swirl of notes. But he soon stopped that, because someone had seen him and come up to him, hand outstretched, and tried to engage him in conversation. Now he stops when he reaches the line of beech trees and listens to the band from there, well hidden among the leaves and trunks.
p.8 (Peirene Press, 2020)
However, we soon suspect that the writer is less concerned with what’s happening outside the old man’s house than with what’s going on inside his head. The confusion at the village shop is merely the first sign that he can’t be taken entirely at his word, leaving the reader in the somewhat dubious hands of an unreliable narrator.
Of course, this is (surprisingly) a two-character story for the most part, and there are times where it’s the man’s (new) best friend that gets the best lines – literally. It’s almost certainly the madness talking, or possibly the wine, but it isn’t long before the stray Adelmo reluctantly takes in starts to do more than just keep his owner company:
Rousing himself from one of the waking dreams that populate his days with shadowy figures, Adelmo Farandola catches the dog scratching at the door that connects the cabin and the stable.
“What are you doing?” he shouts.
“Nothing, nothing. I was just passing the time.”
“If I catch you stealing, I’ll kick you to death.”
“That’s a bit much.”
“I’ll do it! You’ll see. You’re dead!”
They yell at each other for a while, each in his own way, until finally a little snort of laughter escapes, first from one, then from the other.
“Arguing always makes you feel better,” concludes Adelmo Farandola, who is in a philosophical frame of mind.
“I find, for some reason, that arguing gives me an appetite,” says the dog. (p.49)
Which reminds me more of Winnie the Pooh than anything else! Cooped up together for the winter, it’s unsurprising that the two will become close friends (as long as Adelmo doesn’t decide to eat his canine companion first), and much of the book’s charm comes from these spirited exchanges, in which the human rarely gets the upper hand.
As Ockenden’s short translator’s note says, though, there is a third main character, and that’s the mountain itself. I loved the descriptions of Adelmo’s home, the rocky slopes far from civilisation and the balance between the beauty of the glistening white snow and the ever-present threat of avalanches. It’s the contrast between nature on an epic scale and the homely, slightly crude humour of the old man and dog that give the book that certain something, and credit must go to Ockenden here, with this debut translation effort skilfully managing this balance. The book is a pleasant, quick read, but we’re always aware that there’s something more to the story,…
…and that has to do with the third word of the title. The snow is unavoidable, the dog somewhat surprising, but the foot is something else altogether. This discovery at the start of spring marks the start of a new phase of the story, leaving us to reflect on everything the old man has told us thus far, and we’re not the only ones wondering what has happened. As Adelmo and the dog stand at a respectful distance, wondering what lies at the other end of the exposed limb, our friend thinks back to what he did before winter set in, and who he saw. You see, when your memory starts playing tricks on you, it’s only too easy to start imagining the worst.
I wasn’t sure how much I’d like Morandini’s story at the start, but I have to say that I enjoyed it immensely, and in many ways it marks a return to some of those typical early Peirene books, short, quirky tales you can knock off in an hour or two, where the unusual, unpredictable narrators have you itching to go back for a second look – which I’m sure I’ll be doing before too long. That’s as far as I’ll take you into the mountains today, though – if you want to find out more about the foot, and learn whether Adelmo and the dog make it down safely from the treacherous mountain, you’ll just have to try Snow, Dog, Foot and make the ascent yourself…