CHARLIE CONNELLY on Snow, Dog, Foot, a moving novel about living life alone in a complex existence high up in the Alps.
Sometimes the life of a hermit can be a very appealing prospect. Not being answerable to anyone, living entirely self-sufficiently and feeling completely separated from the comings, goings and machinations of the rest of the world and its people. Sounds great right now, doesn’t it? Oh, dear me, yes.
History is littered with some excellent hermits. There was Simeon Stylites, for example, the fifth century ascetic who took to living on top of a succession of poles for more than 30 years, each higher than the last, each a little further away from the world. More recently and closer to home there was James Lucas, the 19th century “Hertfordshire Hermit”, a qualified doctor who, following the death of his parents, moved into the back kitchen of the family stately home, took to wearing a blanket fastened with a wooden peg and never ventured outside again while the house fell into disrepair around him. He gained a degree of fame and would happily receive visitors, including on one occasion Charles Dickens who wrote about the encounter for All The Year Round under the title ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground’.
Dickens wasn’t the only literary figure fascinated by the solitary life and authors have often turned to hermits and loners in their fiction to create some unforgettable characters, from Miss Havisham to Boo Radley. It’s the ultimate in escapism for the reader, a character who has rejected or been rejected by the world and whose only concern is their immediate surroundings.
It also gives the writer a blank canvas: there are no rules, laws or accepted tropes in the hermitic life so it’s a character the author can, in theory, take anywhere they please. In addition, it’s an attractive challenge for a writer’s imagination to conjure a view of the world from someone who has entirely rejected its influence. An exciting storytelling opportunity it may be, however, but it’s also very easy to get wrong. A blank canvas is all very well as long as you have something convincing with which to fill it.
The last few weeks in particular have seen the appeal of the hermitic life expanding rapidly. The ultimate disconnect from the effluent churn of current affairs sounds good to me after four years of engaging with debates and hearing people out who have “legitimate concerns”. A little hut by a lake in the middle of nowhere – perhaps with a good few years’ worth of Frazzles and Crunchies close at hand – sounds incredibly attractive these days, even if the reality might prove unworkable (I’d miss Charlton Athletic too much. Also, my wife).
In the place of becoming an actual hermit, and with a desire to immerse myself in something suitably European in order to escape the parochial snarling now dominating the national discourse, I turned to Snow, Dog, Foot by the Italian novelist Claudio Morandini.
Published this week by Peirene Press, this new translation is a result of the imprint’s ingenious Peirene Stevns Translation Prize, in which entries are invited for literary translations by previously unpublished translators with the winner gaining a book-length commission and a two-month residency in the Pyrenees. J. Ockenden’s rendering into English of Morandini’s book, first published in Italy in 2016 where it was a bestseller, is the result of their winning the 2019 competition.
A book in which we inhabit the world of a solitary character, especially when the horizons of that world are so narrow as to be claustrophobic, has to win over the reader from the start then maintain that world in such a way that we are prepared to live in it for the duration of the novel.
Adelmo Farandola lives in a hut on a (presumably) Alpine mountainside, a dwelling so ramshackle it’s easy from some angles to mistake it for a pile of rocks. He’s an old man whose many years of solitude have made him as irascible as he is vulnerable: during the summer passing hikers can expect a hail of stones if they stray too close but he becomes almost childlike on his twice-yearly descent to the village for supplies.
We learn early in the book that he used to make more regular excursions, always unseen, on high days and holidays in order to listen to the band. He’d hide himself behind a wall and listen to the “confused swirl of notes” that bounced off several surfaces before reaching his ears. Eventually he stopped these visits, “because someone had seen him and come up to him, hand outstretched, and tried to engage him in conversation”.
We learn a little of why Adelmo has taken to the hills. There’s a hint of heartbreak when he dreams about the band, and walking behind the musicians singing, the centre of attention, half-remembered incidents from a half-remembered youth where girls talk to him and he fights local youths for their honour.
The stronger hint is of wartime trauma, flashbacks of a time “when the valleys were haunted by men in heavy greatcoats who muttered incomprehensible words as they lined up everyone they came across and shot them without much ceremony”. Having hidden in the mountains and remained undiscovered by these deadly interlopers it seems Adelmo just never went home.
The most obvious comparison for Snow, Dog, Foot would be with the Austrian author Robert Seethaler’s 2014 international bestseller A Whole Life. Like Adelmo, Seethaler’s protagonist takes to the Alpine slopes for life as a hermit, dipping into “civilisation” only when he has to. While Seethaler doesn’t glamorise a life spent in solitude on a mountainside, a seam of romanticism runs through his book, a certain dignity, beauty even.
There is none of that in Morandini’s creation. Not only is there nothing remotely romantic or beautiful about Adelmo’s life, dignity is pretty thin on the ground too. For one thing, he is filthy. Absolutely rotten. He hasn’t washed in months, possibly years, and there are graphic descriptions of the state of the man beneath his clothes. It’s so long since he even rinsed his mouth, let alone cleaned his teeth, that his tongue has a white coating and he can barely taste any more. Warts and all doesn’t even begin to cover it. You don’t even want to think about where those warts might be, either.
“You can’t trust people who wash and live cleanly,” he says. “They’re the ones who get ill at the drop of a hat, from a tiny draught from a window, from someone sneezing in their face, from a moment of inattention.”
Adelmo’s diet barely even qualifies as subsistence level, especially during the winter when his cabin is completely buried by snow preventing him from going outside for months. He spends most of his year on the brink of starvation but in winter he has to rely on the supplies he’s built up during the spring and summer, dried meat from the deer he’s killed, rotting apples and a few tins bought from the village, and it’s rarely enough.
Spending an entire book inside Adelmo’s head would be a tall order, so thankfully there are two other significant characters here. A young ranger takes an interest in the welfare of the old man and respects his ways despite never seeing the oft-requested licence for his gun. But it’s the mangy old dog that turns up and insinuates himself into Adelmo’s life that makes the book such a success. Soon after the dog’s arrival Adelmo starts having actual conversations with him. First of all there’s just idle chit-chat about food but before long he is actively seeking the dog’s opinions on the predicaments of mountain life.
For a book that seems on the outside a grim prospect, Snow, Dog, Foot is very funny indeed (Morandini forged his reputation in Italy as a writer of radio comedy). The source of the humour is the dialogues between Adelmo and his canine companion and the fact these remain funny in English is testament to the quality of the translation. Rendering a carefully crafted narrative into another language is a tricky enough prospect, but jokes and comic dialogue require a special sensitivity to rhythm and timing to keep the laughs intact. Ockenden’s translation has this in spades. A good example is when the dog is giving a lengthy, detailed and very funny monologue about the benefits and drawbacks of being a sheepdog, especially when bitches are in heat and driving the dogs half-mad with lust.
“For the rest of the year, as I say, it’s completely different and all we think about is food and faeces like proper gentlemen,” says the dog.
Of course the fact that Adelmo is having these conversations raises concerns about his mental health. When he goes to the village shop for his winter supplies and it turns out he’d already stocked up the previous week, an errand of which he has no recollection, the supposition is that he is in the early stages of dementia. Rather, I think it’s more the product of spending all but two days every year in his own company. Until the dog arrives his entire existence is an interior monologue. His only sense of the world, its rights and its wrongs, is inside his own head combining memory, reality and imagination into a fuzzy Venn diagram. There’s been no dissent in his world, no discussion, rendering his whole life entirely subjective, convinced that everything he thinks, says and does is correct behaviour from throwing stones at strangers to wallowing in his own filth.
There is an occasional smidgen of self-awareness. At one point Adelmo tells the dog that if he is, after all, mad, it’s down to the power cables strung over the village where he grew up, and when the foot mentioned in the title enters the story, after the snows begin to melt, he is forced to confront the possibility he might have done something dreadful. Yet even at his most boneheaded Adelmo remains a nuanced, even likeable character whose presence stays with you long after closing the book.
There’s very little beauty in Snow, Dog, Foot and what there is turns out to be a brittle veneer. “It’s worth rotting away inside for an entire season,” says Adelmo, when he can finally emerge from the cabin into a world of pure whiteness, “it’s worth risking death from starvation, just to feel this, to get drunk on whiteness and cleanliness”.
Then immediately we’re reminded how the whiteness barely hides the deterioration beneath, of trees, of foliage, of dead animals swept away by avalanches. As the snow melts the air fills with sights and smells of decay, reminding us that everything in the world is but a prelude to decomposition, and if this wonderful, funny, moving and unforgettable book has a message it’s to remind us of this sobering truth.
Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini, translated by J. Ockenden, is published by Peirene Press, price £12