May 22, 2013
Three Novels That Knocked Me Out
Posted on Nov 12, 2010
“The Lizard Cage” by Karen Connelly
It’s hard to imagine that a book set almost entirely inside the boundaries of a Burmese prison, much of it in solitary confinement, would be a page-turner. Nor would you expect it to be the stuff of poetry. Connelly’s novel is both.
Teza is a singer whose pro-democracy songs had electrified the resistance movement. (His name means “fire.”) Now he’s one of the “politicals” and kept in solitary confinement in the “teak coffin,” a brick cell with teak door. He’s not allowed to read or write. He has no window, only a high vent. He has nothing but his bed mat, lice-filled clothes, latrine pail, and occasional, often pilfered food packets from his beloved mother.
By Cormac McCarthy
Vintage, 304 pages
The Lizard Cage
By Karen Connelly
Spiegel & Grau, 464 pages
Room: A Novel
By Emma Donoghue
Little, Brown and Company, 336 pages
Connelly, who interviewed many former political prisoners for this novel, takes us into Teza’s struggle for survival on every level. Ants and a spider and its web are studied with deep and almost ecstatic attention. He slips into memory and sometimes indulges in fantasy. He survives physically by an act that horrifies him: catching and eating lizards. Tiny bones are in his shit. (Squeamish readers, don’t stop.)
Like most Burmese, he’s Buddhist. He meditates to try to cope with extreme hunger: “… breathing in, breathing out of his cage, swaying slightly with the pulsing tide of his own blood. He goes in deep, deeper, until his bones grow as light as pumice stone. Even his stomach, bitter with acid and little bones, becomes a quiet hollow. The breathing lets him be patient before his hunger like the holy men are patient before the teachings that still elude them.”
Alone in his cage, Teza interacts only with his servers (who deliver food and take out the latrine pot) and jailers, but that is more than enough in this novel to create a vivid tableau and tight plot. Four characters are pivotal: The hepatitis-yellow, traitorous server, Sein Yun; the violent junior jailer named Handsome; the kind, secretly sympathetic jailer Chit Naing; and most important, an illiterate orphan boy who grew up inside the walls of the prison compound. Teza calls him Nyi Lay, little brother. When the boy is assigned to become Teza’s server, gradually the two develop a relationship of trust and protection.
The plot revolves around an unlikely object—a white plastic pen—that the server Sein Yun sneaks into Teza’s cell, along with three sheets of paper. Sein Yun alleges that the politicals in another cell block want the famous Teza to write something they can smuggle out. But is this just a setup? If Teza is caught with this contraband, his sentence will be extended for several years.
I won’t deprive you of the pleasure of the unfolding plot. Suffice it to say that Teza must suddenly and immediately get rid of the pen—but how? There’s nowhere in the cell to hide it. He throws it high through the vent the spider uses. When the jailors can’t find the pen, they beat him within an inch of his life. The boy, Nyi Lay—who now has the pen though no one else knows, not even Teza—nurses the prisoner, who starts a hunger strike. Teza secretly gives Nyi Lay his food and urges the boy, who longs to learn to read, to leave the “cage,” the only world he knows. The jailers’ continuing search for the pen triggers a cascade of events that lead to the novel’s bittersweet ending.
The power of reading, writing and speaking appears everywhere in the novel. “Every political prisoner has an elaborate fantasy of messages,” says the novel’s omniscient narrator. Teza doesn’t consider escaping, but he does think about messages getting out. “Sometimes the words pass through the first brick wall surrounding the prison, and the second one. They move secretly through the great iron gates. Hands take the place of the prisoner’s legs; messages walk out into the world and speak.” “The Lizard Cage” is such a message.
Right now it’s an especially timely one. This week, Burma held its first election in 20 years. The military junta’s “Union Solidarity and Development Party” (what an Orwellian name) claimed 80 percent of the votes in this mockery of democracy. What is it like to live under such coercion, silencing, and real threats of torture or execution? As a friend said after reading “The Lizard Cage,” “Everyone needs to know this. Everyone should read this book.”
To my knowledge, “The Lizard Cage” is the only novel published in the United States about contemporary Burma. It’s a great place to start if you’re new to Burma literature. (There’s much more fiction published about colonial Burma, including Orwell’s first novel “Burmese Days,” Daniel Mason’s “The Piano Tuner,” and Amitav Ghosh’s “The Glass Palace.”) If you want to learn more about the current regime, I recommend the award-winning documentary “Burma VJ” (with footage smuggled out of the country), the feature movie “Beyond Rangoon,” and the nonfiction books “Finding George Orwell in Burma” by Emma Larkin, “For Us Surrender Is Out of the Question” by Mac McClelland, and “Burmese Lessons,” Karen Connelly’s own recent memoir of a love affair with a Burmese dissident.
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