The Lizard Cage. Random House $34.95
Reviewed by Lisa Grekul [Assistant Professor, Department of Critical Studies, UBC-Okanagan]
In David Bergen's The Time In Between and Karen Connelly's The Lizard Cage, readers are transported to Southeast Asia-to, more specifically, Vietnam, in the case of the former novel, and to Burma in the latter. These fictional narratives clearly grew out of their authors' "real life" travels to and fascinations with these "other" parts of the world (Bergen spent six months in Danang in 1996, and Connelly has made numerous visits to Thailand and Burma over the past decade), but a number of additional parallels can be drawn between the authors and their texts. Bergen and Connelly both have impressive bodies of work under their respective belts. The Time In Between is Bergen's fifth book; it follows a collection of short fiction and three previous novels. The Lizard Cage, Connelly's first novel, was preceded by five books of poetry and two books of creative non-fiction. The two writers share an interest, moreover, in how familial relationships are (re)defined in the midst or aftermath of trauma, and how individuals experience and escape imprisonment (literal and metaphorical). Despite the strengths of Bergen's novel, however, not to mention its Giller Prize win, Connelly takes her readers on a more compelling and more deeply moving journey into the fraught terrain not only of Southeast Asia but also of the human mind.
At the centre of The Time In Between is Charles Boatman's return to Vietnam in 1997, where he fought as an American soldier almost thirty years before; his subsequent disappearance forces two of his children, Ada and Jon, to go to Vietnam themselves in search of their father. As the story unfolds, Boatman's and his children's experiences in modern-day Vietnam are juxtaposed against the horrors Boatman witnessed (and participated in) during the war. Upon returning to the United States, directly after the war, Boatman becomes detached from his wife; after she dies, he makes a home for their three children in Canada and proceeds to raise them in a laissez-faire manner. He is a man who has long-needed to confront and lay to rest the ghosts of his past. The catalyst for his return to Vietnam is an autobiographical novel he reads about the war (In a Dark Wood) written by a Vietnamese author (Dang Tho). Going back, he thinks, could bring him resolution and peace: the trip, as he tentatively imagines it, might "conclude an event in his life that had consumed and shaped him." And yet, in a telling commentary on trauma's lingering aftermath, Boatman's "conclusion" (his suicide) becomes the starting point for his children's, and especially Ada's, struggle with guilt and grief. As she retraces her father's steps in Danang and its outlying villages, Ada takes on his quest to make sense of the past and reconcile it with the present and future.
Although what exactly Boatman hopes to find in Vietnam is unclear, even to him, he is unsettled by the apparent erasure of the war from the country's landscape and its people's memory: as he revisits villages in which he fought, he discovers that "[n]othing [is] familiar" to him; Vietnam has moved on, it seems, in part because "grief and despair are a luxury" for which the Vietnamese "have [neither] the money or time." If human connection is what he seeks, the closest he comes to it is through an affair he almost has with Elaine Gouds, an American expatriate whose missionary-husband's enthusiasm for Vietnam is matched by her loathing of it. Ada, like her father, feels similarly alienated in a culture she cannot understand (Jon more or less abandons his sister; he spends the better portion of his time in Vietnam engaging in sexual liaisons with various men, including Elaine Gouds' husband Jack). Put off by Lieutenant Dat, the police officer in charge of her father's file, and irritated by Yen, the young boy who often turns up out of the blue to offer his help, Ada eventually tries to "know" Vietnam-and her father's relation to it-by becoming sexually involved with an artist who was briefly acquainted with Boatman. "She did not know," Bergen writes, "why she was sleeping with Hoang Vu. Perhaps he was the country, or her father, or simply a notion of the country, or a notion of her father." But even that connection fails. Though Ada wants to share her life story with Vu, he does not want to know "the facts of her childhood or the details of her life." Cross-cultural understanding seems impossible, and in the end Ada comes to see her entire trip as a kind of feverish hallucination: "[t]his in between time, the voyage out and back, all of that was a dream." If there is resolution in this novel, it is enacted through Ada's departure from Vietnam; still ambivalent about her father's decision to free himself from the prison of his past, she takes comfort in telling herself that "life had been real once, and it would be again."
The reality of life under Burma's dictatorial regime is the broad backdrop of The Lizard Cage, though the narrative sharply focuses on the life of one man (Teza, or the "Songbird"), a political prisoner in solitary confinement who is in the eighth year of his twenty-year sentence. Arrested in 1988 for his involvement in mass protests, he is a songwriter whose words and voice pose an ongoing threat to the state; as he struggles to survive inside the "teak coffin" (his cell), within "the cage" (the prison itself), the corrupt authorities try to devise ways to extend his sentence. Through Teza's thoughts, memories, and dreams, readers learn about his family members and his childhood. We learn, too, about the lengths he must go to, and the sacrifices he must make, in order to stay alive. The horrors of the prisoners' existence in the cage are myriad: poor food, buckets for latrines, rats, and the threat of malnutrition and disease, not to mention frequent, harsh beatings at the hands of corrupt wardens. Teza, however, suffers more than the others. His meals are especially meager, and so he must eat lizards-breaking the first precept of Buddhism ("to abstain from harming or killing sentient beings")-in order to keep up his strength. Unlike other prisoners, the only human contact he has is with the criminal Sein Yun, who serves him his food, and Handsome, a particularly vindictive jailer; sometimes, too, he is visited by Chit Naing, a guilt-ridden senior warden who is fond of (and kind to) the Songbird. But Teza has no contact with the world outside the cage; writing materials, for him, are strictly forbidden. The narrative gains momentum when Teza is given the opportunity-if he trusts Sein Yun-to write a letter that will be ostensibly smuggled out of the cage. The beating that ensues comes dangerously close to killing him. While his injuries are being treated, he meets and befriends the rat-killer, a twelve-year-old orphan boy who lives in the prison. As the bond between the Songbird and "Nyi Lay" ("little brother') grows, they begin the process of freeing themselves from the cage: Nyi Lay will go to a monastery school, and Teza will initiate a hunger strike to end his life.
The Lizard Cage is long (510 pages), and its premise might feel, to some, dark and depressing, but Connelly's astonishing characters, her carefully-constructed plot, and her poetic language combine to produce a flawless, if heartbreaking, novel that is hard to put down and impossible to forget. Readers will learn much about the Burmese people's struggle for freedom, their history, politics, and culture-not only from the story but also from the many photographs that Connelly took during her travels-and they will be left, as importantly, with a fuller understanding of human beings' capacity for cruelty as well as kindness. As disturbing as much of the novel necessarily is, faith in humanity becomes its overarching message. The inmates of the cage are not the only prisoners in this story; their jailers are imprisoned in their own way by the power that they are expected to wield. Teza's ability to be himself-to be a human being-in the presence of Chit Naing, his jailer, liberates both men: "Teza refused to act like a prisoner, which freed Chit Naing from acting like a jailer." That Teza finds family (Chit Naing and the orphan boy) in the cage is remarkable; that he is able then to "release himself" from the prison marks the triumph of goodness over hate and fear. His decision to stop eating empowers him to bring peaceful resolution to a long, angry struggle: "I do not want to die hating them," he tells Chit Naing, "the awful them. Who are they? They are my own people. You were once them." Sending Nyi Lay to school is his final act of love: though he knows that he will never see the boy again, Teza willingly makes the sacrifice in order to ensure that his "little brother's" desperate desire to learn how to read will be fulfilled.
Both The Lizard Cage and The Time In Between draw attention to language and its potential to change lives: it is a book, after all, that compels Boatman to return to Vietnam, and it is Teza's songs of protest which land him in prison. But whereas Bergen's understated exploration of the power of language feels like a missed opportunity, Connelly's substantial thematization of words (their value, their potency) becomes the richest aspect of her novel. The most poignant moments in The Lizard Cage are those in which Nyi Lay tries unsuccessfully to teach himself to read ("the boy's eyes manoeuvre over the page slowly, laboriously, like two ants carrying a piece of food many times their own size . . . [he] holds the book and believes it: I am reading I am reading"). His longing to make meaning out of letters is mirrored by Teza's hunger for the written word (he painstakingly takes apart cigarettes so that he can read the bits of newspaper in which they are wrapped). The importance of language-as a means of connecting people, communicating truth, keeping love and hope alive-is further underscored when Nyi Lay risks his life by bringing paper and pen to Teza and then smuggling out his friend's words. Language, which was the reason for Teza's imprisonment, becomes the carrier of his spirit after his death; it becomes another form of freedom for him, long after he is gone. For this reason, perhaps, Teza's death in The Lizard Cage animates a fuller range of human emotion than does Boatman's in The Time In Between. Both characters, in committing suicide, find a way to escape their respective prisons, but readers are likely to only remember one.