A Play for the End of the World: A novel

Image of A Play for the End of the World: A novel
Release Date: 
September 7, 2021
Reviewed by: 

A Play for the End of the World deserves credit for finding common humanity among three very different cultures, while telling a compelling story.”

In this ambitious debut novel, the prize-winning short story writer Jai Chakrabarti weaves three major narratives, three continents, two wars, a play-within-a story, and, most important, four children caught up in different sorts of traumas, over a span of some 60 years.

While some of the narratives are inevitably more compelling than others, the complex structure generally works. That’s because all the stories circle around the shared issues of memory, guilt, and hope.

“His body remembered even when he wished to forget, and this was a terrible fact—how memory had mapped itself onto his bones,” thinks Jaryk Smith, a Holocaust survivor and the primary narrator.

Jaryk is a 39-year-old Polish-Jewish accountant living in New York City when the novel begins in 1972. The memory he wishes to forget is his very survival: He was one of some 200 children sheltered by the pediatrician Janusz Korczak in a now-famous orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto, and he alone managed to climb out of a window in the cattle car that took everyone else to the gas chambers at Treblinka.

(When he arrived in the U.S., Jaryk deliberately chose the last name “Smith” to sound American.)

One more person from the orphanage also survived: Misha Waszynski, Jaryk’s mentor, who had evaded the cattle car. Now, to add to Jaryk’s survivor’s guilt, Misha has died on a trip to India that Jaryk refused to join. 

The reason for that trip is to stage a 1912 play, The Post Office, by the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore, which Jaryk, Misha, and their fellow orphans had performed during their last evening in the ghetto. (The orphanage and that performance are historically accurate.) A politically activist Indian professor is producing the play in sympathy with a Maoist insurgency and Bangladesh’s recent war of independence.

The play has become a useful metaphor because it’s the tear-jerking story of a poor young boy, Amal, who is confined to his home by an incurable illness. Even as he is dying, Amal continues to believe that the regional king will visit him.

To assuage his guilt, Jaryk decides that he will go to India, retrieve Misha’s ashes, and help produce the play. 

However, this requires him to abruptly leave the only other person he has let into his life—Lucy Gardner, a young, aspiring, non-Jewish pianist from North Carolina—just as she becomes pregnant with their child. 

“Sometimes she would come to him like a sharp pain, a hook in the eye,” Jaryk thinks about Lucy. “But now he’d failed Misha, abandoned him to his end. How could he not return to find his friend’s ashes?”

(There are far too many subplots to go into in a single review, but a key one involves Neel, the Indian youngster who plays the part of Amal, for whom Jaryk becomes a father figure.)

The main characters of this novel are complex people with interesting mixes of traits. Jaryk, for instance, is a strong laborer who’s also good with numbers, albeit sometimes too nobly self-sacrificing to believe. Lucy wishes she weren’t quite so “touchy-feely Down South” with her clients at the city employment agency. Misha remains a romantic while working in the rough-and-tumble Fulton Fish Market.

Chakrabarti, who was born in India, usually manages to keep all his narrative balls in the air, though he gets tangled too much in the weeds of the Bangladesh war and the Maoist insurgency.

A Play for the End of the World deserves credit for finding common humanity among three very different cultures, while telling a compelling story.