Renato Amato: The Italian ‘with a lot to tell us’

by Listener Archive / 16 June, 2012
But Renato Amato “had only just begun to tell us”, according to Maurice Shadbolt, when he died from a brain haemorrhage aged 35. Half a century later, Susan Jacobs pays tribute to a talent cruelly cut short.
It was a gray, bleak April day in Wellington in 1964. A small group of people stood around an open grave at Karori Cemetery. Just as the coffin was being lowered, a short rumple-haired, dishevelled man came hurrying jerkily – “like a little leprechaun”, recalls one mourner – through the cemetery up to the grave. He crossed himself, then threw a handful of dirt onto the coffin. It was James K Baxter. Like other writers, some established, some fledgling, he had come to pay homage to his friend, a little-known but emerging writer from Italy who had made New Zealand his home 10 years earlier.

Renato (Michael) Amato’s sudden death from a brain haemorrhage at just 35 stunned Wellington’s close-knit literary community. It cruelly cut short a respected talent developing into a distinctive, coolly dispassionate voice that not only mined the experience of the migrant but also gave a wry, illuminating, if bitingly alien, perspective on New Zealand society. Maurice Shadbolt in particular was devastated. His friendship with Amato was so important he felt a part of his own past had died with him. In an effort to give his friend some belated recognition, Shadbolt put together a collection of Amato’s short stories that had been published in literary magazines such as Mate and Experiment.

Entitled The Full Circle of the Travelling Cuckoo, it was published to generally warm reviews in 1967. Shadbolt also undertook to sort through Amato’s papers – among them book reviews, essays, adult education lectures and an unpublished novel – to gift to the Turnbull Library. Amato has remained largely forgotten, although he is now included in the canon of migrant literature. I initially discovered a slim volume of his stories in a public library soon after I returned to New Zealand from living in Italy. It was uncommon for an Italian of his generation to speak let alone write in English. To my knowledge, he was the first to do so in a New Zealand context, although he showed customary disdain for the idea of a “national literature”.

He believed New Zealand writers – whom he considered “good middle-classish individuals trying to build their works on the foundations of a learned rather than a lived experience” – would “find it difficult to get rid of the ‘pohutukawa’ complex which has no relevance outside, unless you make it a ‘tree’ complex”. When Amato arrived in New Zealand in 1954, he wished to escape the burden of Italy’s history and a traumatic wartime past. In an unpublished piece called The Wop in the Land of the Long White Cloud, he wrote of his disillusionment and his hope of a better life in the loosely designated “democratic world”.

Influenced by American literature flooding Italy after the war, he did not give much thought to the particularities of geography. When an opportunity rose to go to New Zealand, he relished the possibility of reinventing himself in a distant island paradise, devoid of the deep divisions scarring Europe and the restrictive Italian labour market that imprisoned a young person in a dreary job for life. His dream of a utopia free from rigid social structures and petty provincialism was just that.

The sneering, xenophobic hostility he encountered in his first job on a building site in Murupara convinced him the most pressing concern was to change his name. To avoid being mercilessly teased as “tomato”, he became “Michael”, a name his friends and wife knew him by. However, when he started writing again, he published under his Italian name. A succession of selling jobs took him all over New Zealand. His marriage to Scottish-born Sheena McAdams in 1958 settled him in Wellington and he began studying for a BA at Victoria University. He had been reticent about his past but when his wife discovered manuscripts and notebooks in Italian in an old trunk he confessed he had been a published writer.

By 1960, he was president of the university’s literary society. He impressed fellow writers with his mastery of the language and entertained them with stories of the literary world in Rome. In his unpublished writings, he mocks his own naivety. He had met the renowned poet and novelist Cesare Pavese just months before his suicide, but remembered above all being repelled by Pavese’s mismatched socks. Another piece describes a bizarre encounter with American playwright Tennessee Williams, from whom he fled in disgust when it was requested he dress up in stockings and suspenders.

Amato had always felt himself an outsider. At 16, he ran away from a home dominated by his severe father, hoping to reach his grandmother in Potenza, in southern Italy. At this time, Italy was a battleground for the Allied and Axis armies and in the throes of a brutal civil war. Picked up by Italian Fascists, Amato was given the choice of being sent to a German labour camp or joining the Fascist Black Brigade.

He chose the latter, influenced by idealistic notions of reclaiming Italy’s glorious past. He even carried a bullet in his body from a skirmish against Italian partisans. But as his most accomplished story, Only a Matter of Grammar, reveals, he ended up silently witnessing from the ranks of the partisans the execution of his former companions. Sent by his commanders to infiltrate the partisans, and probably, in hindsight, to save him from an anticipated massacre, he found their ideals and slogans mirrored those of the Fascists and were couched in similar language.

The scarring experience of his early years provided the impetus for escaping Italy and the reason he could never emotionally relinquish it. This underlying conflict is transformed into an acute sensibility that coolly observes the dissonance between self and other. Hisprose is spare and precise, with a sharp clarity that risks alienating the reader with its almost deliberate detachment. Paradoxically, in his better stories it has the haunting effect of drawing the reader in even more to its stark psychological truths.

Above all, Amato was ambitious. He initially corresponded with Mate editor Robin Dudding under an assumed name to see if his “foreignness” was picked up in his writing. His approach to his craft was uncompromising. “A writer is an analysing machine… a crushing machine that takes the mineral ore and breaks it down into its various components until the nuggets see the light of day.”

Those who knew Amato remember him as prickly, provocative, and generous with his time. He loved a good argument and would take up a calculatedly antagonistic position just to rile people. In Shadbolt’s controversial 1971 novel, An Ear of the Dragon, he drew liberally on Amato’s life and his friendship with him and his wife. It caused a stir, as he was accused of exploiting the material in Amato’s unpublished novel, impinging on a dead man’s copyright.

However, in his memoir, From the Edge of the Sky, Shadbolt insisted he and Amato had made an agreement that whoever died first gave the other permission to make fictional use of his life. Amato was believed to represent something entirely different in New Zealand writing. Shadbolt felt “he had a lot to tell us” that “he had only just begun to tell us”. But as Amato foreshadowed poignantly in his last story, when he described a Sunday walk with his small son through sleepy Wellington streets, peopled with beckoning ghosts from his past, he was so short of time.

Susan Jacobs is author of Fighting with the Enemy: New Zealand POWs and the Italian Resistance and the newly released In Love and War: Kiwi Soldiers’ Romantic Encounters in Wartime Italy.

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