Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini: ‘A compelling exploration of memory and madness’

By Malcolm Forbes

Adelmo Farandola has cut himself off from society. A mountain-dwelling loner, he spends his days up in his cabin or in the surrounding valleys and pastures, revelling in the silence and the seclusion.
He doesn’t care about his appearance – he hasn’t washed in months, he stopped brushing his teeth years ago – and he loathes the people in the village below. He doesn’t want company, he doesn’t need it and he doesn’t get it.
One day, however, Adelmo receives a visitor in the form of a starving, mangy old dog. At first he shoos it away. When it keeps returning he allows it into his house and gradually develops a grudging affection for it. But then another entirely unwelcome visitor starts showing up – an over-friendly, overzealous mountain ranger – who breaches Adelmo’s peace by asking if he has a muzzle for his dog and a licence for his shotgun.
Adelmo appears to be unfazed: “He doesn’t follow rules. The valley is his. The animals are his. The air is his.” And yet he has the nagging feeling he is being spied on.
When winter comes, that vague suspicion is replaced by a concrete problem: provisions have run out early because the dog has been a second mouth to feed, but both are snowed in and a trip down to the village is impossible. Their luck changes when they find the well-preserved and still-edible bodies of dead goats, ibexes and chamois at the foot of an avalanche. But buried alongside them in the snowslide is a man’s foot.

Snow, Dog, Foot is Claudio Morandini’s sixth novel and his first to be translated into English – seamlessly by J Ockenden. A bestseller in Morandini’s native Italy, the book frequently plays with our expectations and throws us off balance. At the outset, it presents itself as a story about a curmudgeonly hermit making do and getting by in his self-imposed exile. It then turns into a gentle, heart-warming tale of one man and his dog.
But after a fashion Morandini’s narrative acquires dark hues and rough edges. Slowly yet significantly, we see Adelmo coming apart at the seams. In the book’s opening scene he stocks up on supplies for the winter. He thinks it is his first visit to the village since April and so is amazed when a shop assistant tells him he was in the week before. He makes his way home bewildered and despondent: “He doesn’t remember,” Morandini informs us, “he doesn’t remember having forgotten.”
This mental lapse turns out to be no isolated case but rather the first sign of a steady unravelling and the beginning of a calamitous losing streak.
Later, Adelmo fantasises about burning down the village. Perhaps inevitably, he starts talking to his new canine friend. The pair chat, laugh and bicker. Their exchanges are fantastical, whimsical and blackly humorous: “That’s not an animal,” says the dog, eyeing the eponymous foot. “It’s one of your lot.”
But as Adelmo continues to lose his grip on reality (“after years of solitude true things become indistinguishable from dreams”) and his creator paves the way for a devastating conclusion, the novel shifts in tone, with comic effects giving rise to tragicomic consequences.
For a relatively short novel, Morandini packs a lot in. He takes us through a range of emotions, his double-act often amusing us and unsettling us on the same page. His setting is skilfully mapped: no Alpine idyll or romantic retreat but an ugly, rocky mountainous wilderness.
His seemingly limpid prose contains murky depths. It also contains a wealth of original imagery: snowflakes hit the windows “with a nervous little noise, like the sound of a page turning in an overly long book”; that protruding foot is “blackened and dry like a lightning-struck sapling.”
Best of all, though, is Adelmo. Although distant towards those he encounters, Morandini ensures he is a flesh-and-blood, warts-and-all protagonist, worthy of our empathy. His faulty mind and wayward antics make for a compelling exploration of memory and madness.

(Malcolm Forbes, The Herald – Scotland, 02/02/2020)