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May 2, 2007
The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly

Even in comparison to the rest of Asia, Burma looms large in the Western conception of the exotic Orient. That air of mystery stems in part from the nation's Buddhist monuments and royal history, and to a degree from nostalgia for British colonialism, memorialized in the writing of Kipling, Orwell, and Maugham, and set in such tantalizing locations as Mandalay, Pagan, and the banks of the Irrawaddy. However, the main reason for Burma's continued aura of exoticism derives from the fact that it remains shut off from much of the world. Although tourists have increasingly begun to penetrate its borders, trickling in mainly from northern Thailand, Burma maintains its status as a state apart, isolated even from its neighbors by the oppressive politics of its military dictatorship.

All of that contributes to why THE LIZARD CAGE, the first novel by Canadian writer KAREN CONNELLY, is so impressive. Through her experiences traveling in Burma and the relationships she has built with refugees who, like herself, have taken up residence in Thailand, she has channeled the tenor of life in contemporary Burma. The novel successfully evokes the diverse sensory signatures of Rangoon streets, provincial monasteries, and a squalid prison for petty criminals and the political opposition. Nevertheless, its focus is more on the development of two central characters than on either of their surroundings.

The first of these protagonists is a pre-adolescent boy who can remember no home other than the jail. After the death of his father, who was on the prison staff, the boy carved out a niche for himself in the regimented but lawless society of the compound. Known to most of the people around him as 'little brother', or by a slur that seems tantamount to 'catamite', this anonymous child is lost in the maw of a dysfunctional system. He has little sense of self until he is asked to serve the prisoner he calls the Songbird -- a Burmese Bob Dylan imprisoned for inspiring revolution with his music -- who gives the boy a nickname of his own. He calls the boy 'Free El Salvador', for the slogan printed on his only t-shirt. That baptism proves a turning point in the boy's life, and a hook on which he can hang his developing identity.

The Songbird is the other character around which THE LIZARD CAGE revolves. The jailed musician's real name is Teza, which in Pali means 'a powerful and glorious fire'. Teza does not seethe in his cell, despite its isolation and forced discomfort. He is not angered that the wardens steal his food packages and leave him to subsist for days on end on the lizards he catches, kills, and devours raw.

Connelly embroils us in Teza's thoughts and spends chapters at a time invoking the reptilian mindset to which the title refers. We come to inhabit a psyche obsessed with the basest of needs, concentrated on the compulsions of the amygdala. That relic of evolution connects us, through our limbic system, to the lizards that Teza's situation compels him to capture. Eventually, however, we see the higher regions of his cerebrum win out. His Buddhist upbringing becomes a source of strength, a starting point for the reclamation of the glory and power of which prison has stripped him.

The novel is remarkable for having transgressed the territory of an unapproachable country and then going further, scaling the walls of a prison outside its capital. In her characterizations of Teza and the boy, Connelly has entered yet a third form of inaccessible space, beyond the borders and the barbed wire: the alterity of another's consciousness. Its portrayal of the minds of these two people, so different from each other and from the author, makes THE LIZARD CAGE worthwhile reading even for those without a particular interest in the troubling politics of a troubled country.

- Alexandra Moss