Clever, poignant, readable and South African to the core
LUCKY PACKET by Trevor Sacks published by Kwela Books, Cape Town, 2019.
This is a book that drew me in, quicker and deeper as I turned the pages. I seldom review novels, but Lucky Packet is different, it’s more like an autobiography, that is not only well-written, but clever: As Ben tells his story, as a 12-year-old, he brings in everything from family history to small town prejudices along with a broad sweep of South African politics in the 1980’s. Apartheid practices and their effects on locals, the reaction of those who tried to ameliorate these, are all dealt with in a way that is verycredible, as Sacks’ writing as a young Jewish teenager is so convincing.
What he presents is a picture of a Jewish family living in a conservative Northern Transvaal town during the State of Emergency in the 1980s. Ben Aronbach, the writer, feels as if he doesn’t fit in anywhere, as his schoolmates are Afrikaans-speaking Christians and - as his family is not religious - they don’t fit in with the Jewish community either. Ben also missed out on having a father to look up to as he died when Ben was just six years old.
While life, and school, and school tours and meeting girls go on, and Ben experiences the embarrassments and anguish that teenagers are subjected to, the family business is failing and the local bank manager is not being co-operative about loans. With the entry of one Leo Fein onto the scene Ben’s life got more complicated, more so after it was revealed that this “uncle’ who had chatted up his mother, and befriended Ben, was escorted from Ben’s bar mitzvah by two government men (who “lifted Leo Fein up under his armpits...”) Whatever else he had done, it turned out he had also stolen a large part of the Aronbach fortune.
Guilt consumes Ben as he feels that a job he did for Fein contributed to the family loss, and only years later, as South Africa prepared for the 1992 Referendum, could he confront the charlatan . Meanwhile, to try and make large sums of money to help the family, Ben undertook jobs for Leo Fein after his return to the town, which included a trip to Moria to meet the bishop of the Zion Christian church and an encounter with the AWB.
Ben spent much time with his mother before her death, during which they shared thoughts with each other that helped him, to an extent, deal with his guilt.