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Saturday, August 29, 2020


A novel smothered and oozing in rich colours, flavours and tastes. (Review by Fiona de Goede)

Loves and Miracles of Pistola by Hillary Prendini Toffoli is a novel smothered and oozing in rich colours, flavours and tastes – food plays an integral role in the life of Ettore, an ambitious young Italian boy from a tiny village in Italy. However, Pistola, as he is fondly known, has more than just a voracious appetite for food: he longs for adventure and the chance to escape the restrictions the village of Campino imposes on him.

Although Campino is a little village, the inhabitants are larger than life. Nonno Mario, Pistola’s grandfather, cooks sublimely and teaches Pistola all his skills. Frog risotto is his specialty! Then there is Zio Umberto, the butcher, with arms like Parma hams. Zia Andromaca is the village baker and the lovely aroma of her freshly-baked fare wafts in the air every morning. To add to the line-up of villagers, there is the coffin maker, the silkworm farmer and various other charming characters that add zest and zing to this tapestry of village life.

But Pistola is restless and feels stifled. His unrequited love for his second cousin Teresa is a further reason why he feels he needs to spread his wings and leave Campino. When it becomes clear that she is set on marrying the village bad boy, Pistola and his friends decide to accept the offer of a lifetime and head for Africa. Johannesburg, South Africa, to be precise. 

The South Africa of the 1950s, amid raging racism, offers Pistola and a further 109 Italian boys the opportunity to spread their wings and face an unknown future filled with travel and adventure. The Minister of Transport at the time, Ben Schoeman, deems it unacceptable that black waiters serve white passengers on the trains and the job is considered beneath whites. As waitering is accepted as a professional job in Italy, this seems to be the ideal solution.

After their contracts with the Railways ended, many of these young men stayed on in South Africa and opened trattorias serving typical Italian food – a far cry from the tinned spaghetti and bland macaroni and cheese which was the fare of that time and passed for Italian cuisine.

As the title of the book suggests, this is about Pistola’s loves and miracles – these appear in various shapes and guises. Pistola and his friends work hard but, being young hot-blooded Italians, playing hard features extensively in their after-hours pursuits. Parties in Hillbrow and Sophiatown where they rub shoulders with Miriam Makeba is just one of the incidents that is highlighted in the book. Pistola meets a young girl, Malikah, of District Six and realizes he is in love with her. However, the apartheid police thwart their illicit romance and he faces severe consequences. 

Throughout the book, the author describes the various characters in a rather stereotypical way but it manages to add charm and colour to the various role players. Two scenes stood out for me personally. One was the viewing of the promotional film shown to the Italian boys with the view of luring them to South Africa. This was truly enjoyable reading as I could visualize their awe and wonder at viewing scenes of magnificent beauty, wild animals, and gold virtually lying in the streets…

The description of a typical South African braai was another favourite: I could almost smell the charcoaled meat and taste the corn.

The author, Hillary Prendini Toffoli is based in Cape Town and is married to an Italian who spent the first 19 years of his life in a small Italian village. I recall reading many of her articles in Style magazine and therefore relished the thought of reading this, her first novel. She co-authored one other book and wrote many features for various South African publications.

Loves and Miracles of Pistola by Hillary Prendini Toffoli is published by Penguin Random House. ISBN 978-1-48590-433-5 - Fiona de Goede