THE LIZARD CAGE
by Karen Connelly -- Harvill Secker British Edition
Review by Karina Magdalena Szczurek
The Lizard Cage brings to light the fragility of freedom when confronted with the crushing madness of tyranny. It evokes the events which took place in Burma between 1988 and 1995, two crucial dates in the precarious history of the country.
In 1988, thousands of people were killed in anti-government riots, "because of two unpardonable crimes: knowing they deserved a decent life and having the nerve to demand one."
Thousands of others were imprisoned and tortured in the aftermath by the military dictatorship which still controls Burma today (and insists on calling the country Myanmar).
One of the people put under house arrest after the protests was Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the oppositional National League for Democracy, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, the same year Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize in Literature, which honoured Suu Kyi's contribution to resistance against oppression.
In 1995, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest for a short spell, which gave many people left behind in prisons renewed hope for a better future. Her arrest has been extended repeatedly, most recently two months ago for another year.
Among the prisoners is the protagonist of Connelly's novel, Teza, also known as the Songbird, a political prisoner from the 1988 street protests: "Twenty years in solitary confinement. For singing songs? It was too absurd, even in this absurd country."
Teza's songs inspired people to fight: "It was the old dream, the oldest music, written again in human blood, soiled by human excrement, with shoes bereft of feet scattered all around. The chorus was a single word: freedom."
During his imprisonment Teza is denied everything: clean water, decent living conditions, interaction with others and, above all, paper and pen, considered the most dangerous of contraband materials.
In this inhuman set-up, for a few words written on any kind of material prisoners are beaten violently, often to the point of unconsciousness, with their sentences extended by a few years. Yet, the need for words is greater than all these threats. Teza restores to reading the tiny newspaper scraps used to make cheroots he occasionally gets to smoke.
Confined to a solitary cell, Teza has to hunt lizards in order to supplement his irregular meals of rice, thus breaking the First Buddhist Precept, "which is to refrain from harming or taking life". The food parcels his mother is allowed to send him, keep disappearing.
He retreats into memory and meditation to stay sane. Sometimes he puts imaginary books into his hands, he listens to every sound, feels every texture, smells every scent, and speaks to the crawling creatures in his cell.
Sometimes he raises his voice to make sure that the darkness can hear him: "I am still a man. My name is Teza." He does not sing anymore, afraid of losing more teeth, not even when he hears of Aung San Suu Kyi's release. Instead, he throws a little stone through the air vent of his cell: "When he hears it hit the ground outside, he smiles, bows, dances a jig. He celebrates the lady's release with the liberation of stone."
Connelly's poignant style captures all these images of beauty Teza clings to in order to survive. Moreover, one of her most fascinating achievements is the way she preserves Teza's own beauty in the midst of the ugliness and brutality he finds himself in. We know he is regularly beaten, he suffers from rashes and bites, he is hardly ever allowed to wash, brush his teeth, change his clothes, and yet he remains beautiful.
It is in this beauty that Connelly renders his humanity. Nothing can extinguish it. It is like the fire of glory and power which is captured in his ancient Pali name, Teza, which was also the nom de guerre of General Bogyoke Aung San who fought for Burma's independence.
Teza is completely at the mercy of the cruel Junior Jailer Handsom, who will take every opportunity to crush Teza's dignity. Apart from his memories, a spider keeping him company, the cockroaches he observes and the ants he takes for walks, Teza also makes friends with two human beings in the cage: Senior Jailer Chit Naing and the orphaned boy living in the prison, know as Little Brother. Both will risk their lives for Teza, and by risking them will learn what it means to be free, to be loved.
Connelly has previously published poetry and travel writing. The Lizard Cage is her debut novel.
Although her characters are based on actual people she met and interviewed during her extended travels in Burma, they are fictional. Yet her rendering of their harrowing experiences is so authentic that they transcend fiction to become real in the reader's mind, a transcendence reminiscent of André Brink's depiction of the dealings of the security police in A Dry White Season or Nadine Gordimer's often quoted credo, "Nothing is as true as my fiction". Reading The Lizard Cage I was also reminded of something else South African – a refusal to support a United Nations security council resolution condemning the Myanmar regime's human rights abuses at the beginning of this year.
Courageously, Connelly does not avert her eyes or her pen, and although by now she is denied entry in Burma, the many true stories she has captured in the fictional world of The Lizard Cage, which won the 2007 Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers, are like the Songbird's final "I will not", or his song smuggled out of prison.
A flicker of hope.