Borderless Book Club: ‘Snow, Dog, Foot’

Last Thursday I was very excited to be back at the wonderful Borderless Book Club, this time, for a discussion on Snow, Dog, Foot from Peirene Press, written by Claudio Morandini, and translated by J.Ockenden.

The meeting started with a chat about the translation of the book. The translator, J, came to this translation (their first full length) in quite a unique way. Snow, Dog, Foot came to fruition through the inaugural year of the Peirene Stevns Translation Prize, established in order to reach out to unpublished literary translators. Each year the prize focuses on one language, with participants being asked to translate the opening chapter of a book, in this case, Snow, Dog, Foot. The winner then goes on to complete the whole translation, commissioned and published by Peirene Press, with the opportunity to complete part of their work during a three month stay in a lodge in the Pyrenees. After graduating from Oxford in French and Italian, the prize came at a perfect time for J, who was unsure of what to do next. J explained that they were immediately hooked after reading the first chapter of the book, proceeding to download the PDF so they could finish the book before beginning the translation. J’s approach to the translation was to create a quick first draft, avoiding obsessing over and second guessing words and phrases (something that it is very easy to do in translation!), then going back to the completed first draft to begin fine-tuning. Jenny Higgins was also J’s mentor throughout the translation process, J said having a second Italian speaker was great for clearing up doubts, and that being able to discuss complex and difficult parts of the translation with someone opened up some really interesting conversations. The most challenging part of translation for J was writing the landscape, they said that they felt the atmosphere and the location were the most important elements of the novel, therefore, they were very tricky to translate and get right. It was very interesting to hear how J found completing their first translation, and such a wonderful one at that!

A warning that from here onwards there are spoilers.

Snow, Dog, Foot was a brilliant read, one of my favourite from the book club so far! The novella follows the strange and somewhat repulsive Adelmo, a cantankerous hermit living in a mountain recluse in the Italian Alps. We first meet him at the end of autumn as he is reluctantly heading down the mountain and into the village to stock up on supplies so that he can survive his long, solitary winter back up in the mountains. Someway up the mountain he comes across a dog that begins to follow him, annoyed by its apparent attachment, Aldelmo curses the dog and even kicks it, despite all of this, the dog sticks closely to his side and follows him home. Back at the house, the dog still shadowing him, Adelmo begrudgingly accepts that it is here to stay. Slowly his annoyance at the dog begins to wear off a little, and, seeing him as a potential companion, Adelmo begins to talk to the dog, who, after a while, speaks back. We also discover that Adelmo believes he is being spied on by a mountain ranger. The mountain ranger attempts to be friendly and make conversation with Adelmo, but his responses are blunt and rude, we even find out that he has thrown rocks at the mountain ranger in order to drive him away. With hints that Adelmo’s memory is blurred and confused from the very start of the book, here, it begins to become more obvious. Through Adelmo’s encounters with the dog and the ranger, we begin to see that his memory is very muddled, he repeats things to the dog and doesn’t remember conversations he has had with the ranger for example. The only memories of Adelmo’s that seem certain and well formed are those of the war and his childhood. Adelmo remembers hiding from the grey coated soldiers for days in a small nook in an old mine during the war, and offers a glimpse into his childhood where he lived under buzzing electric lines that made everyone ‘crazy’. With the arrival of winter, the man and the dog are snowed in, everything runs smoothly at first, however, their stock soon begins to rapidly deplete, so, rather than starve, Adelmo takes to picking the grime off his skin and consuming this. We are treated to very detailed and grotesque accounts of the man’s appearance, having not washed or cleaned his teeth for years and years, one can only imagine how disgusting Adelmo is. As the pair wait impatiently for the snow to melt so they can replenish their stock, Adelmo continues to reminisce on memories of the war and the buzzing electric lines, and continues to slowly eat the grime off his body. Finally, the snow melts just enough that they are able to leave the house, and the pair make a shocking discovery: the foot of a human corpse sticking out of the snow. As the snow slowly thaws to reveal the body, Adelmo thinks the man looks a little like the ranger, in fact, he thinks that he remembers shooting him. Upon the resurfacing of this hazy memory, the old man makes the sudden decision to take the body to the perfect hiding place, after all, he doesn’t want anyone to discover it and accuse him of murder. So, Adelmo drags the corpse up the steep mountain to the old mine that he hid in during the war. He digs out the covered entrance to the mine whilst the dog waits outside, he takes his time to do this, and the dog grows impatient, persistently whining. Eventually, Adelmo breaks through and pushes the body into the depths of the mine, he also decides to lie down alongside it, and it is here that Adelmo’s memory once again begins to become confused. Adelmo now thinks that he doesn’t recognise the dead man at all, so, who is he? As night falls the dog stops whining, Adelmo leaves the cave and upon seeing the dog asleep, he brings a rock down onto its head and kills it. In the closing pages, we see Adelmo lying alongside the cadavre, conversing with the body as he hears his brother searching for him outside.

After the chat on the translation of the novel, we broke off into groups to discuss the ins and outs of the story. One of the main points of discussion was on the dead body and who it belonged to. A whole range of interesting ideas were floated around, many that I had not even considered myself. My personal reading was that the dead body was that of Adelmo’s. Perhaps he died during after being found by the ‘grey coats’, and now his ghost is haunting the mountains. At the end of the novella then, it could be considered that Adelmo’s soul or ghost drags his or body back to his hiding or resting place. This could explain the unreliability of Adelmo’s memories and the fact that the most certain points of his memory are those before he died. This could also perhaps explain his ability to converse with the dog. Our group also talked about the significance of the setting, with the mountains and the landscape being the third protagonist of the novel. We all agreed that the landscape and climate were the driving forces behind the narrative, with nature having complete control over Adelmo, even undermining him, and, as mentioned, at the end of the novella he goes back to nature, submits to it as he lays surrounded by dirt and moss in his hiding place. This return to nature could explain why Adelmo makes the decision to kill the dog, detaching himself from everything that links him to the ‘real’ world.

I had a wonderful evening on Thursday discussing Snow, Dog, Foot! This week I will be reading Arid Dreams from Titled Axis Press, written by Duanwad Pinwama and translated by Mui Poopoksakul, in preparation for the next Borderless Book Club…

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