When we go through Karen Connelly's debut novel The Lizard Cage, it takes us into an exotic land. Connelly is a Canadian writer and 'The Lizard Cage' is her gritty novel about a political prisoner and a savage indictment of Myanmar's military regime.
Teza, a student activist and popular protest singer, was arrested during the pro-democracy protest in 1988 in Myanmar. He is kept in solitary confinement in a prison complex known as 'The Cage'. He has served seven years of a 20-year term. Under the harsh prison regime, Teza suffers constant hunger using lizards to supplement his diet and vicious beatings. He depends on his Buddhist faith and memories of bygone days to endure the hardship. Senior jailer Chit Naing, troubled by his conscience, is sympathetic to Teza's plight, but junior jailer 'Handsome' is sadistic and violent. Connelly has visited Myanmar often and lived for two years among Myanmar exiles on the Thailand-Myanmar border. In the Cage there is also a Little Brother, an orphaned boy raised in the prison, who survives by killing rats and selling them to the hungry prisoners. He becomes Teza's server, delivering his prison meals. Teza is now cut off from his family and contact with other prisoners. Despite his isolation, Teza has a profound influence on the people around him. His very existence challenges the brutal authority of the jailers, and his steadfast spirit inspires radical change. Even when Teza's criminal server tries to compromise the singer for his own gain, Teza befriends him and risks falling into the trap of forbidden conversation, food, and the most dangerous contraband of all : paper and pen.
Lizard Cage is lyrical, poignant, astonishing, at times shocking, and ultimately, unforgettable. The carefully constructed plot hinges on two prisoners - one who is behind the bars of a cage and the other who is constrained by his own spiritual bars. The Myanmar government thought Teza's songs to be revolutionary. The other is his self-appointed 'little brother', a nameless boy of twelve years old, who goes by the name of his faded t-shirt, which reads, 'Free El Salvador.' These two broken souls - find each other within this place of horror. At times, their friendship is enabled by the senior jailer Chit Naing, one of the more complex characters in fiction, truly a duck out of water. The junior jailer, known as Handsome, is a sadist who thrives on working out his own childhood demons by the torture and abuse of others. The book shows us man's inhumanity to man. Witness Teza's musings: "When you make love, you begin the world with another person; two small gods build the first kingdom out of the body's clay…But when a man beats you in the cage, he wants you to know he's got the whole substance of you in his hands, your life and your death." Again Teza says, "The Buddha taught us that things change over time…Even if people or things look the same, they're always shifting or growing or dying. Nothing keeps the same for any of us. So we try to have upekkha, to live with upekkaha. That means to accept the change that comes and be calm in it."
There is a strong subplot about pen and paper contraband, and the lengths that the jailers go to eliminate it. The pen is, indeed, mightier than the sword. Teza uses meditation and reflects upon Buddhist principles to stay alive and imparts these ideas to a young boy, who though not a prisoner, lives in the prison and works there. In this story we see the power of resistance and language. Contraband paper and pen that would enable one to read and write are powerful weapons against oppression and the prisoners risk much to obtain such items and to have others 'outside' hear their voices. We also see here the significance of the characters' relationships with other living things such as insects, lizards, what we would commonly consider pests. Connelly seems to have learned it and other crucial lessons from the great masters of the literature of political incarceration. Like China's Wei Jingsheng, a democracy activist jailed for nearly two decades whose prison letters were published as "The Courage to Stand Alone," she knows that even a tenuous bond with another living creature can bolster the soul. Wei raised rabbits. Connelly's prisoner studies ants. Even more crucial, Connelly realizes - as Nelson Mandela explained in "Long Walk to Freedom," an account of his 27 years of detention in South Africa - that "the most important person in any prisoner's life is not the minister of justice, not the commissioner of prisons, not even the head of the prison, but the warder in one's section."
In Connelly's novel, the jailer recruits the young orphan to smuggle the prisoner's writings to the outside world, much as one of Mandela's fellow prisoners spirited parts of his manuscript out of Robben Island. The penalty, in the South Africa of the 1970s and in the 1990s Myanmar of Connelly's novel, is, at the least, a further extension of an already inhumanely long sentence. The brutal force of incarceration dominates and corrodes everything for a political prisoner, so the written word, comparatively immaterial, acquires added power. Newspapers, Mandela observed, were "the most precious contraband on Robben Island. News was the intellectual raw material of the struggle." He and his fellow inmates scrambled to retrieve bits of newspaper that had held the warders' sandwiches. In Connelly's novel, the equivalent is the Myanmar cheroot, whose filters are wrapped in newsprint.
Connell brings to mind another Westerner, George Orwell, who served as a British imperial police officer in Burma in the 1920s and based his first novel, "Burmese Days," on the experience. As Emma Larkin points out in "Finding George Orwell in Burma," there's a joke in the region about Orwell, that he wrote not one novel about the country but three: "Burmese Days," "Animal Farm" and "1984." Orwell's essay "A Hanging" forcefully contemplates the subject of oppression, rather than its instrument. In it, he recalled watching as a prisoner stepped aside to avoid a puddle on the walk to the gallows. "Till that moment I had never realised what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man," Orwell wrote. "When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive."
'The Lizard Cage' dramatizes a world where the powerful can force intimate cruelties upon the weak. The world shrinks to the size of a cage that holds but one man. Prison does not keep out the country's politics but rather concentrates it. The jailers and the jailed must take some stance. The cost of a merciful act can be one's own survival. Teza is attractive to everyone who comes across him. He is innocent and loving; he is a famous popular musician. Others are moved to trust him, to help him, to use him, to destroy him. Teza composes and sings a song for his brother, Aung Min, a guerilla freedom fighter at the border:
"Brother, sometimes I fear for you
Will you enter a new era
only to make up another word for murder?
I cannot see the weapons you carry
only that warped guitar "
'The Lizard Cage' tests whether Buddhist practices have efficacy in a murderous culture. At the start, the starving Teza struggles whether or not to kill and eat the delicious lizards who visit him. Soon we face the question of how to use violence against the military.
-Reviewed by Masum Billah
(The writer is a researcher in the field of education and a literary critic. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org )