In 1942, a prominent Polish Jewish children’s author, Janusz Korczak or Pan Doktor,staged a performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s play The Post Office. The Indian play is about a very sick boy who will die. Korczak, consistently refusing sanctuary and insisting he stay with the nearly 200 orphans in his care, wanted to prepare the children (and himself) for what was likely to come. In August of that year, the entire orphanage, including Pan Doktor, was sent from the Ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp. Pan Doktor, the children, and the nurses were all gassed – the children dressed in their finest to meet death. This story is true. Pan Doktor, the orphanage, the performance of the play… this is all true. Jai Chakrabarti imagines what would happen if two of these children survived in A Play for the End of the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2021).
A Play for the End of the World centers on Jaryk, a survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto, and Lucy, a free spirit from Mebane, North Carolina. (As a North Carolinian, I was a bit surprised and delighted to see Mebane show up as Lucy’s hometown.) The novel is a love story between Jaryk and Lucy, but it’s also a love story between Jaryk and his best friend, Misha. Misha is ten years older than Jaryk and had taken the young boy under his wing when Jaryk showed up at the orphanage. Like Jaryk, he escaped the fate of the other children. Both deal with their past and their survivor’s guilt in different ways. Misha is loud and open. Jaryk bottles the past deep inside, and the fractures seen in his relationship with Lucy are centered around the secrets and his guilt.
A professor from India connects with Misha and invites him and Jaryk to stage the same play they’d both been a part of in Pan Doktor’s production. He wants them to direct the play in a rural Indian town, Gopalpur. There’s a lot of unrest in India, particularly in rural areas, and he wants to use the play as a political message.
Jaryk doesn’t want to go, so Misha goes without him. While there, he dies. Jaryk flies to India to collect his friend’s ashes, and to finish what Misha had started. There, he finds himself on another political stage where normal people are driven to do bad things. Torn between his love for Lucy and the guilt that continues to consume him, he makes decisions that he will later regret.
A Play for the End of the World is a solid debut with moments of genius. The correspondence between young Jaryk and Pan Doktor through a dream journal is heartbreaking. Lucy’s relationship with her father, which we don’t get too much of, had me rooting for her to leave New York for good. The unbreakable bond between Misha and Jaryk, forged as only tragedy can do, is the preferred “love story” of the novel.
I did find some sections too rushed and incomplete – as if in the editing process, something important or introductory was removed and it not addressed elsewhere. Also, the editor screwed up the dates in the chapter headings; the scenes in India did not take place in 1942. All in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical fiction and appreciates the impact of the arts in political theater.
Read this book.