The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly

Claudia Smith Brinson
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Noble story of imprisoned dissident, young orphan fills The Lizard Cage.

The Lizard Cage

Publisher: Nan A. Talese
ISBN: 0385518188
Author: Karen Connelly
Price: $26.00
Length: 448
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-03

For close to two years, Karen Connelly lived among Burmese exiles and dissidents perched on the Thai-Burma border. She uses their experiences to make strong and true her first novel The Lizard Cage, among the saddest and most beautiful novels you might ever read.

She tells the story of Teza, struggling with hunger and loneliness in the seventh of a 20-year sentence to solitary confinement.

The Singer, or the Songbird, as he is known, was arrested by the secret police. His protest songs, and his national popularity, offended the ruling generals, who call themselves the State Law and Order Restoration Council and rename the country Myanmar. (The novel is grounded in the actual situation in 1990s Burma.)

Teza's physician father, also arrested on political grounds, has died in a work camp. Teza's younger brother, sure his own arrest loomed, retreated into the jungle to continue the fight. Their mother, Daw Sanda, keeps Teza alive with her food packages and her continued existence.

It is illegal to publish Teza's name, but he remains, in secret, the country's most celebrated singer. Tapes are made and distributed, and Chit Naing, one of Teza's jailers, a man who has rediscovered his conscience, listens:

"The generals devour the holy bones and jewels/ the tongues and hearts of our people/But we have turned our shoulders/to push against their crimes/...We listen to the red commandments of the dead..."

Teza's jailer is Sein Yun, a fast-talking, self-serving jewel- and drug-runner. He tries to entrap Teza in a just-because crackdown on political prisoners. The contraband? Pen and paper, worth an extra seven to 10 years on a sentence.

With Sein Yun's coaxing and his provision of paper and a ballpoint pen, Teza writes a letter to Daw Suu Kyi, a leader of the National League for Democracy. But a dream and his instincts lead him to eat his letter, shred by shred, just before guards come to search his "teak coffin."

You know of Daw Suu Kyi, the 1991 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. She is known worldwide for her quiet resistance. She was placed under house arrest by the military regime, which did not recognized the National League for Democracy's election win. The novel takes place while she is under arrest but ever-present in hearts and minds.

Her initial house arrest lasted until 1995; it was reinstated from 2000-2002. In 2003, she was again arrested after a massacre of supporters. Her husband has died and her children have grown up without her.

In the novel, she is beloved, a reminder of the possibilities outside. She is muse and saint to the prisoners.

For Teza, the pen is a bigger problem than the paper. His impulse as the guards march down the hall toward him does not so much save him as prolong his suffering, for he is horribly beaten.

Finding the magically absent pen becomes the obsession of an enormously cruel jailer called Handsome.

The prison chief orders Teza taken to the "white house," where a so-called doctor provides contraband morphine and useless commentary about Teza's shattered jaw. But it is here that Teza finds a friend, an orphan who shares a tiny hut with a beetle and a lizard and does errands in the prison for food.

The 12-year-old wears a T-shirt that says, "Free El Salvador," and, for Teza, this becomes the child's name. To others, the child is the "rat-killer," a service he provides, adding protein to prisoners' boiled rice.

Each day the child is in terrible danger, from Handsome, who beats and almost drowns him; from the cook, who attempts a sexual assault. But this place is all he has. He has not been to school; he barely remembers his mother. There are simple words he does not understand because he knows nothing of the sights, sounds or experiences behind the vocabulary.

The child's prayer: "Let me be small, he thinks. ... There is not enough food for big people here. ... Let me be a cockroach. He smiles. They are so quick, so shiny."

Teza realizes his life is lost; he is "ready to leave this body behind." But the child can be saved, through his plan, Chit Naing's assistance, the child's bravery.

A plot summary does not convey the beauty and terror and nobility of Teza's story, representative of so many others.

Connelly's amazingly meticulous observations place us in the cell with Teza, where a tiny lizard is a meal, a spider a companion and Teza's own compassion is the grace offered.

Some books inspire us with the beauty of words and words' rhythm. Some move us to action with their political observations. This book does that and more; it shows us how to be good.





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