The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly

Some blog posts flow more easily than others. This one has been so difficult, full of starts and stops, delete delete delete.

I guess I’m just searching for that perfect way to tell you about this book. So that I can convince you to read it. I’m not doing a very good job now am I?

Maybe I should just let the book speak for itself.

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“The singer is lying on the floor, a gray blanket pulled up around his chest. With slightly narrowed eyes, he stares at the ceiling. A single lizard is up there, clinging to the plaster.”

And so we meet Teza. He is a political prisoner in the “teak coffin” or solitary of a prison outside Rangoon. There is an air vent, high up on one wall, too high for Teza to look out. The rest is brick wall and the door. He has been in prison for nearly seven years, and he has thirteen more to go.

“From solitary, the whole cage is a foreign country to him. He lives on the very edge of it, straining to hear voices.”

Teza is forbidden to write or receive letters. And his only regular contact is Sein Yun the palm-reader, a fellow prisoner who works in the prison serving food and emptying latrine pails to reduce his sentence. Teza has nothing to do but stare at the walls and wait for his meals. He watches the ants that meander around his cell, watches the copper-pot spider in its web near the vent, and talks to himself. And there is also his “cheroot ceremony”.

He hoards his cheroots, not to smoke them, but to unwrap them and read the fragments from the newspapers that they are made from. It is an image that stays with me long after I’ve finished the book. This desperation for words, for any hint of news from the outside world, even when these are words that don’t even make a sentence. He thinks of his mother who would read these news articles. For him these words, these fragments are so precious.

“The words are runes. Each piece of paper has a story, whether a sad romance from the literary section or a boring government announcement or a funeral notice. Whispering under his breath, Teza fills in the missing text.”

“In his mind, the cheroot-makers are beautiful, goodhearted, with pale swirls of thanakha paste smeared, powderlike, on their cheeks. If they knew they were making cheroots for him, they would find a way to put Dostoyevsky into the filter, The Brothers Karamazov, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a great time by Pablo Neruda, and Gone with the Wind, a book he’s wanted to read ever since he saw a photograph if Vivien Leigh in an ancient Time magazine. They would fill their cheroots with popular Burmese novels and bowls of curry. They would send wreaths of the sweetest jasmine to him, sticks of incense and squares of gold foil for worship. They are fine young women. Teza ceases to be angry with the blank newsprint. He thinks of girls’ hands, working.”

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Teza is in prison because of his songs of freedom, songs of protest that have echoed throughout Burma, songs written by a 25-year-old university student who could not comprehend what twenty years in solitary meant.

Though it is illegal to publish Teza’s name, he remains the most celebrated singer in Burma. In secret. The Press Scrutiny Board censors even oblique references to music or art, or anything at all, if it believes the allusion is connected to Teza. Chit Naing suspects that this prohibition just makes the singer more famous. It’s the same with Daw Suu Kyi: there’s a nationwide ban on her name too, but rather than make people forget about her, the SLORC has turned her into a legend.”

As if solitary were not enough, Teza is tormented by junior jailer Handsome who tortures him, teases him, and seems to take the utmost pleasure in doing so.

Tess’s previous jailer Chit Naing had been friendlier, and even visits him. Teza’s other friend is Little Brother, a 12-year-old orphan who has grown up inside the prison walls. He works in the cage for food and cheroots, and catches rats to sell to the prisoners. While he isn’t a prisoner, he has never really experienced life outside the cage before and is honestly terrified of the big wide world and all its uncertainties awaiting him.

“The boy can’t forget and tries not to remember his own story. Not-forgetting not-remembering is the best way to live in the cage.”

The two of them are thrown together when the most contraband of items – a pen – goes missing.

 

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Although most of the story takes place within the walls of the cage, Connelly’s novel is so vivid and evocative, resonating with the sounds and smells of Burma, through Teza’s memories and the daily motions of this harsh prison life.

The Lizard Cage was such a moving, compelling read. It is serious and intense (sometimes too intense – I was clenching my fists when Teza was brutally beaten up) but it has such wonderful sweet moments. It is a reminder that our freedom (to walk around, to read, to eat whatever we’d like, to sing and listen to music, to believe…) is precious.

I read this book for my personal challenge: Reading Southeast Asia in August.

karen-connelly-pubphotos-005Karen Connelly is the author of nine books of best-selling nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, the most recent being Burmese Lessons, a love story, a memoir about her experiences in Burma and on the Thai-Burma border. She has won the Pat Lowther Award for her poetry, the Governor General’s Award for her non-fiction, and Britain’s Orange Broadband Prize for New Fiction for her first novelThe Lizard Cage. Published in 2005, The Lizard Cage was compared in the New York Times Book Review to the works of Orwell, Solzhenitsyn, and Mandela, and hailed in the Globe and Mail as “one of the best modern Canadian novels.” Her latest book, Burmese Lessons, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award and British Columbia National Award for Canadian Nonfiction in 2009.

Bibliography
The Small Words in My Body — 1990
Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal — 1992
This Brighter Prison: A Book of Journeys — 1993
One Room in a Castle — 1995
The Disorder of Love — 1997
The Border Surrounds Us — 2000
Grace and Poison [reprints The Small Words in My Body and The Disorder of Love with a new preface] — 2001
The Lizard Cage — 2005
Burmese Lessons — 2010

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4 thoughts on “The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly

  1. I know how you feel, sometimes a book is so great that it’s intimidating to even begin to explain it! This book sounds incredible, I’ll definitely keep an eye out for it. Thanks for including the author bio too, great touch.

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  2. thank you for such a long and thorough review. I am very grateful for readers like you. Thanks for tweeting me this message too—I am a very spotty twitter person, so missed it for a long time. all my best, karen c

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    1. Hi Karen!

      Thanks so much for stopping by and reading my review!
      And of course thank you for writing The Lizard Cage. It was one of my favourite reads of August – and possibly this year? And I really hope more people read it. I’m looking forward to reading your other books!

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