THE LIZARD CAGE by Karen Connelly. Nan A. Talese. March 2007. Hardcover, 448 pages. $26.
Thanks to Aung Sung Su Kyi (fortunately) and gross human rights violations (unfortunately) Myanmar is in the news with more regularity than ever. This is a country shrouded, for the most part, in great mystery, virtually cut off from the rest of the world. A place where those who desire to travel there must weigh that desire against the fact that tourism to the impoverished country will only line the pockets of those in charge. Still, many travel there and find the country both unbearably sad and breathtakingly beautiful. Author Karen Connelly lived on the Thai-Burma border, interviewing former male political prisoners, for the unique perspective of a book ostensibly about prison life in a repressive regime, but also the overcoming of the misery found there.
Connelly’s novel focuses on Teza, nicknamed Songbird for his vibrant and frank protest songs against Burma’s repressive regime. Most of the novel focuses on his time in jail, though it also flashes back to his life with his mother, a gentle, strong woman who raises orchids, and his father who is taken away and whose fate is not hard to imagine. His last words to his children were, “Don’t forget me.” His brother, Aung Min, leaves the country knowing he can never return, raising a subtle but underlying question: Who is braver—the one who stays, or the one who leaves?
The novel is sometimes hard to read for its gritty and inhumane depiction of a Burmese prison. What makes it powerful and compelling is Connelly’s portrait of Teza as an intelligent, sensitive, wise, and brave man whose gentle practice of Buddhism ultimately relieves him of the horrors of the prison.
Writing from an exclusively male viewpoint posed no particular challenge, says Connelly, who did most of her interviews with former male political prisoners and rationalizes that “women tend to know more about men than men know about us, I think. Once I imagined Teza as a character he became quite alive and ‘acted’ on his own.”
As for her depiction of a Burmese prison, much had to come from not only the testimonies of prisoners, but ultimately, from her own imagination. “My prison is based on Insein [prisons] of course, but it is not exactly Insein. The writings and detailed descriptions of former prisoners helped me immeasurably in this task—various dissident groups have done a great deal to record the abuses and the actual physical environment of Burma’s prisons, and I wouldn’t have been able to write the book without their help.”
Teza has no hope of ever getting out of prison, that much is obvious, and the reality for so many of Burma’s political prisoners. Life inside the prison is squalid and hopeless. Teza is at the mercy of a cruel jailer who desires to be much more than he is. Then there is an old fortuneteller, Sein Yun, who brings Teza his meals, and empties his shit pail, but ultimately tries to double cross him. The benevolent Chit Naing, who is both a jailer and in love with Songbird’s mother, risks both his life and Teza’s in order to convey messages between mother and son. Nyi Lay is a young boy who is not a prisoner, but has lived there since the early death of his father. Nyi Lay is used and abused by the prison staff and it is not until he is spotted by Teza that life slowly, but with momentum, begins to change for both of them.
Connelly’s mastery of storytelling is evident in her portrayal of the friendship shared between Teza and little Nyi Lay. Both influence each other’s destiny, and Buddhism influences the outcome of each character’s destiny.
It took Connelly nine years to complete the novel, in part, “because I needed to grow up and into the weight of my own material—the complexity of Buddhism as a religion both of acceptance and of defiance; the difficulty of relinquishing the ever-loving, ever-hungry human body; the need humans have for the spiritual. Buddhism, as a philosophy and way of life, has always made good sense to me, has always felt natural. But to be a young man in prison facing his own demise, and gradually embracing it: yes, I struggled to enter that state in my imagination and in my heart. I spoke with many former prisoners about the role that Buddhism played in their survival in difficult circumstances, especially in solitary confinement, and it was amazing to learn how fearless some of them came to feel about their own deaths, how detached. Paradoxically, it was this very detachment that enabled them to rally their resources and live.”
Admittedly, the reader may feel uncomfortable with irresolution of events at the end of the novel which lacks the wanted assuredness that, in the end, for Burma as well as those who attempt to live with oppression there every day, all shall be well. This was intentional on Connelly’s part, though she does have hope. While Connelly admits that the situation in Burma looks “bleak,” she stresses that time and struggle may eventually change things: “The dictatorship, I hope, will eventually crumble as the influences of the outside world become stronger. … but no human system can remain closed indefinitely, and the Burmese are extraordinarily resourceful.” The Lizard Cage is surely a testament to that fact.
Michelle Reale lives and writes near Philadelphia, and is devoted to the study of South Asian literature.