GUARDIAN REVIEW OF THE LIZARD CAGE

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Rat Catcher

February 3, 2007
published in the UK by Harvill Secker
 

    Tash Aw gains an insight into the everday horrors of the Burmese gulag

In the sealed-off world of a vast prison known as the Cage, Teza languishes in solitary confinement. A third of the way into a 20-year sentence, he spends his days staring at spiders, talking to ants, enduring beatings and catching lizards in order to supplement his diet of pea gruel and rice. Beyond the prison walls, Burma is in a state of turmoil, ruled with increasing brutality by the military dictatorship. What follows is a brave, though ultimately flawed, mixture of political treatise, personal meditation and conventional thriller.

Set in the 1990s, travel writer and poet Karen Connelly's first novel follows the miserable day-to-day existence of Teza, once the most famous political singer-songwriter in the country. Terrorised by the junior jailer Handsome and the scheming dogsbody Sein Yun, Teza's only friends are Chit Naing, a sympathetic prison officer, and Little Brother, an orphan who leads a semi-feral existence catching and selling rats within the prison compound. Jealousy and self-interest are pitched against justice and human decency as Teza unwittingly becomes the subject of a struggle between his allies and his enemies. It is in this old-fashioned battle between good and evil that the novel has its most compelling moments, with Connelly using a variety of plot devices to great effect: the mysterious disappearance of the pen that holds the key to Teza's fate, or the race to get Little Brother (and the information he holds) out of the prison compound to the safety of a monastery.

In her description of the squalid conditions of prison life, Connelly creates scenes that are genuinely disturbing. The lizards of the title become a source of both nutrition and shame for Teza: he tries in vain to hide their tiny bones that appear in his faeces, wanting to keep this desperate act secret, "like masturbating and weeping". The rats that infest the novel "smell of garbage". Little Brother waits for them at the openings to drains, trading their meat for rice. But there are more subtle signs of the perversion of human life in these conditions. Handsome becomes infected with a deep paranoia, persecuted by the smell of excrement in his tea. With other details, such as the tiny fragments of newspaper that Teza carefully unravels from his cheroot filters, Connelly beautifully conveys the bleakness of life in solitary confinement.

Where Connelly struggles is in combining these delicately rendered images with a wider-scale picture of a country in turmoil. Too often, particularly in the first third of the novel, information is delivered with a curious heavy-handedness. "Ne Win's regime orchestrated shortages to stem the circulation of subversive writing" sounds like a line from a news documentary, as does this description of Aung San Suu Kyi: "As soon as she became politically involved, images of her started to circulate." The delivery of these facts is too earnest, too dense for the political events to be absorbed into the intriguing drama taking place inside the prison walls.

The dialogue, too, is sometimes awkward. Lines such as "to hear someone talk about books is as good as eating my mother's curry" feel flat and contrived, as if Connelly is trying a bit too hard to recreate Asian speech. The habit of repeating the English translations of Burmese expressions ("Ma lok boo. I will not", "Sa! Eat!" and so on) further risks puncturing the novel's authenticity: what language are the characters speaking? Other details stand out in the homogenously Burmese world of the novel: that Teza's fingers are observed to be double-jointed feels immediately foreign, given that most southeast Asians share similar characteristics.

With a political backdrop that feels forced and cultural details that are not always convincing, much of the power of this potentially devastating novel is lost. Many of the more lyrical passages slip dangerously into the realms of cutesiness, and certain characters begin to resemble pantomime villains. Connelly often seems too anxious to convey her extensive experience of the modern state of Burma; the weight of information she provides obscures rather than heightens the sense of a country in crisis. In spite of this missed opportunity, the novel remains an expertly constructed, often harrowing thriller.