Teza is a Burmese singer, a man whose voice and songs fills the hearts of those who are horrified by the military dictatorship who has slaughtered thousands and silenced even more. It is for his voice that Teza is arrested and imprisoned in “the cage”…a prison where torture and starvation are the norm. Karen Connelly’s absorbing novel centers around Teza and his imprisonment…and it is a heartbreaking story.
As a practicing Buddhist, Teza feels enormous guilt when he is driven to kill the lizards in his prison cell in order to avoid starvation. He attempts to live a spiritual life, often meditating to survive the brutality within the walls of his confinement. Teza befriends the senior jailer, Chit Naing, a man who is sickened by the treatment of prisoners and sympathizes with those who are against the government.
Teza refused to act like a prisoner, which freed Chit Naing from acting like a jailer. For Chit Naing, the illicit friendship was dangerous, though he was sure he could trust Sammy not to betray them. – from The Lizard Cage, page 87 -
After a particularly brutal beating, Teza is moved from solitary confinement to another part of the prison where he meets a twelve year old boy. “Little Brother” has grown up in the cage after being orphaned and is not a prisoner – instead he lives among the guards and prisoners…a lost boy who is seeing far more than any child should see.
This place of brick buildings and high walls is his school and his playground and his home. He does not think of it as strange. He remembers-forgets playing with other children in the village, a long, long time ago – when he was very small. In their kindly misguided way, the Thais are right, and the boy agrees: the prison is no place for little children. Fortunately he is not a little child. The screams in the middle of the night, the sounds of torture, the growls and stifled cries of fighting, of men raping, being raped, the stench of human shit in the dog cells, the clear evidence of men going mad or becoming cruel, the sight of men sobbing, of men dying: he is old enough to know about these things. – from The Lizard Cage, page 190 -
The Lizard Cage is a brutal, searing novel…but it is about far more than the violence within the walls of a Burmese prison. This is a book which examines freedom – the freedom to speak, to read, to write – freedoms which are staunched and punished in a country where the military dictatorship controls everything. In Connelly’s novel, the endurance of the human spirit is revealed as Teza refuses to hate those who imprison him, as a guard makes the choice to be human rather than follow orders, as a hardened criminal protects and nurtures a young boy, and as that young boy learns that in a world of violence there may be those he can trust.
A pen and paper become symbols of freedom in The Lizard Cage – objects that seem so small, and yet represent something much larger.
As long as there is paper, people will write, secretly, in small rooms, in the hidden chambers of their minds, just as people whisper the words they’re forbidden to speak aloud. – from The Lizard Cage, page 57 -
The Lizard Cage is beautifully crafted, honest, and relentlessly heartbreaking. I grew to love Teza, a man who should have no hope and yet is able to still find beauty in the world…a spider spinning her web in his cell, the industriousness of the ants in the walls, and the blueness of the sky seen through a small window. Teza’s hope and love radiates out from him changing the life of one of his jailers, and touching the life of a small boy whose future is still ahead of him. In a novel which reveals the worst that humanity has to offer, Teza becomes a bright and shining example of hope and goodness.
Connelly’s writing is beautiful. I marked passage after passage as I read. Tears pricked at my eyes. I held my breath as I turned pages, afraid for the characters. I just could not stop reading, even when I knew the story would not have a happy ending for at least one of the characters. Novels like this one are a testament to the power of words and stories.
Karen Connelly won the 2007 Orange Prize for New Writers for The Lizard Cage – and it is evident why she won this prize. Although Connelly does not spare her reader the violence and torture found inside Burmese prisons, she allows for hope and the beauty of the human spirit.
I was immensely touched by this novel. It made me cry. It made me angry. It made me appreciate the courage of artists living in Burma. It made my heart bleed for the children caught in the chaos. The Lizard Cage is a must read for those who do not want to hide from the realities of our world. Hope for change is in speaking and writing about that which we would rather not hear.