The 98th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the June 1994 issue. The intro read:
Rob O’Neill on Renato “Michael” Amato, 1928-1964. The first in an occasional series.
If, like me, you spend a lot of time rummaging around in second-hand bookshops, you may have come across the name Renato Amato. If you’re not, then the odds are that you wouldn’t have.
It was 30 years this April since Amato died from a brain haemorrhage in Wellington at the age of 35. His single volume, the collection of stories The Full Circle Of The Travelling Cuckoo, was posthumously published in 1967. Since then he has been almost universally, and quite unjustly, ignored. Perhaps because of the dominant strain of literary nationalism at the time, ironically a movement often associated with his friend Maurice Shadbolt, Amato just didn’t seem to fit.
Born in Portenza in southern Italy in 1928, Amato fought on both sides during World War II. First he was co-opted into the Fascist Black Brigade and later, using forged papers, he joined the partisans — where he saw many of his former officers taken prisoner and executed.
Filled with a general disgust after the war, Amato tried to build a life for himself. He attended university but did not finish a degree. He began writing and had some pieces published. Moving to Rome, he acted, wrote, took labouring jobs and waited on tables. He met several more-established writers, including Cesare Pavese, but they made little impression on him.
Working for a refugee organisation in the early 50s and learning English, Amato began to think about emigrating. New Zealand was virtually off limits to Italian migrants so, perhaps out of some sense of perversity, he decided that was where he wanted to go.
He arrived in Auckland in 1954 and renamed himself Michael. Again he found a succession of jobs — labouring, selling linen door-to-door — and virtually abandoned writing until, in 1958, he met his future wife, Sheena McAdam.
She was a student at Victoria University and, with her encouragement, he enrolled there himself and began writing again. Between then and his death in 1964, Amato had numerous stories published in local literary journals and his talent and promise began to be recognised.
To his contemporaries, Amato always seemed a writer of another order — internationalist when nationalism was a strong force in literature, cosmopolitan in a relatively closed and insular society, never prepared to pander to his new countrymen’s need of positive affirmation.
Robert Chapman described him as “the one adult in an adolescent generation”. And Maurice Shadbolt, in his introduction to Amato’s collection (where much of this information comes from), remembered him as “contemptuous of all special pleading for New Zealand and New Zealanders in literature”.
Another who knew him, John Parkyn, an occasional writer and one-time editor of the Victoria University journal Argot, says he was “one of the kindest men l have ever known. But he also loved nothing better than a good argument, taking an outrageous, taunting position on some literary or non-literary matter. ‘Come in, Johnny Parkino!’ he would bellow as he opened the door of his Kelburn house. ‘Why is your country so bloody boring?’”
New Zealand and New Zealanders do not get off lightly in his fiction either. In stories like “An Evening’s Word” he often used a fine sense of irony to display all that was provincial, crass and hypocritical in our society. Perhaps it was this that has led him to be little anthologised since. Amato’s unwillingness to heap praise on his adopted country, and often his willingness to do the reverse, hit us where it hurt the most: in our fragile sense of national pride. We could take such criticism from a fellow New Zealander — just — but from an outsider, a foreigner, an immigrant, it was too much.
But in the end, the only question that really counts is quite simple: Could he write? And the answer is equally straightforward: yes, and very well. His recent inclusion in Vincent O’Sullivan’s Oxford Book Of New Zealand Short Stories is totally deserved.
The Full Circle Of The Travelling Cuckoo is, for me, one of the best collections of short fiction published in this country. It should still be read.