TELLING DREADFUL TRUTHS

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By Kay Latt
August 1, 2007

Karen Connelly's novel of Burma brings a poet's sensibilities to the dismal reality facing the country's many prisoners of conscience

We have few novels in English that attempt to capture the tedium and terror of life for Burma's political prisoners; even fewer that do it as effectively as The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly.

In some respects, Connelly tells the story of all political prisoners in Burma—the capricious nature of convictions, the brutality and sadism of prison officials and the psychological torments that accompany life in the "lizard cage."

Connelly is an accomplished poet, and her lyricism breaks through the savagery of her subject matter in unexpected and compelling ways as she presents the journey of a songwriter, Teza, whose plunge into the dark and hopeless world of Burma's prison life begins as it does for so many others with the democracy movement.

But the novel has less to do with causes than effects, and the bulk of the narrative explores the confines of Teza's solitary cell and the unanticipated threats to his physical and psychological well-being—from the external meddling of barbarous prison staff to the intense guilt that overcomes Teza as he compulsively hunts and eats the lizards in his prison cell.

It is the furtive image of the lizard that serves throughout the novel to remind readers that prison forces Teza to make a daily choice between survival and defeat. The lizards augment his meager food rations, and they provide him with a task to keep his mind diverted from the tedium and misery of his captivity. But the tiny bones he tries to hide in his slop pail reveal the shame that accompanies his daily acts of self-preservation.

Connelly accurately captures the desperate attempts made by prisoners to maintain some connection with the outside world, and how that desperation can be used by jailers to further torment their victims. Teza has been stripped of all his power by those who thrive o¬n suffering. All he and his fellow inmates have left is to protect the sovereignty of their own minds.

As Teza stalks the small lizards in his cage, his nemesis, Handsome, the ruthless jailer, takes every opportunity to wound him when and how he can. In the end, Teza stages a hunger strike in an effort to take back some of the power he has lost in prison. It is perhaps fitting that the outcome of his protest remains inconclusive by the end of the novel because Teza's story continues to play out in the lives of the more than 1,000 political prisoners still trapped in the lizard cage.

Beyond its striking symbolism, the novel is also a simple tale of two brothers lost in the political chaos that has characterized life in Burma for decades. Connelly's dedication of the novel to Aung Zaw and Kyaw Zwa Moe, brothers who found themselves together again o¬n the Burmese frontier after being hunted and imprisoned for their political activities, shows how thinly disguised her fictional story really is. Perhaps like many other readers, I discovered elements of my own history in the person and details of Teza.

Like Connelly's hero, I have been trapped in the lizard cage and was separated from my brother, who fled to the India-Burma border to continue his fight for democracy. I also faced additional charges for breaking prison rules by trying to reach family members and smuggling descriptions of the brutality of Burma's prisons to the outside world.

I shared Teza's deep adoration for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, with whom I was privileged to work for a time. I have endured solitary confinement without htaung win sar, or regular family visits, and I have taken the dangerous step of using criminals like Kalarlay (a derogatory term meaning "little Indian") to get contraband in and out of prison.

These details employed by Connelly to bring Teza to life may be the tools of a fictional narrative, but they are based o¬n the dreadful truths that many of us have endured, and continue to endure, under Burma's ruling tyrants.

The novel does get a few items wrong. Burmese prisons never have blackouts at night. The lights stay o¬n for security reasons. This is why the best time for Teza to masturbate is in the afternoon, when the guards are generally asleep. A prison warden would never search a prisoner's belongings himself. They are usually regarded as the "king" of their domain and would delegate that task to an inferior officer. And no prisoner, including tansees (prisoners assigned to supervise other prisoners), is allowed to wear a watch.

These errors are slight and take nothing away from Connelly's moving tale. Her image of the lizard cage signifies much more than a claustrophobic prison cell in which a single innocent man suffers daily physical and psychological torment. Rather, Connelly's novel is also a portrait of a nation held hostage and struggling to preserve its dignity and identity.

Kay Latt is a former political prisoner who spent more than eight years in two of the regime's most notorious prisons, Insein and Thayet, from 1990 to 1999

Author's note: some prisoners reported being "blacked-out" for the night, especially if they were in solitary confinement, as Teza is. And some prison wardens did seem to enjoy a distinctly hands-on approach to destroying their prisoners belongings during searches—in the scene Kay Latt refers to, the lower officers do most of the work, but at some point, the jailer cannot contain his fury and joins in.