Set during Burma's military dictatorship of the mid—1990s, Karen Connelly’s exquisitely written and harshly realistic debut novel is a hymn to human resilience and love.
In the sealed-off world of a vast Burmese prison known as the cage, Teza languishes in solitary confinement seven years into a twenty-year sentence. Arrested in 1988 for his involvement in mass protests, he is the nation’s most celebrated songwriter whose resonant words and powerful voice pose an ongoing threat to the state. Forced to catch lizards to supplement his meager rations, Teza finds emotional and spiritual sustenance through memories and Buddhist meditation. The tiniest creatures and things–a burrowing ant, a copper-coloured spider, a fragment of newspaper within a cheroot filter–help to connect him to life beyond the prison walls.
Even in isolation, Teza has a profound influence on the people around him. His integrity and humour inspire Chit Naing, the senior jailer, to find the courage to follow his conscience despite the serious risks involved, while Teza’s very existence challenges the brutal authority of the junior jailer, perversely nicknamed Handsome. Sein Yun, a gem smuggler and prison fixer, is his most steady human contact, who finds delight in taking advantage of Teza by cleverly tempting him into Handsome's web with the most dangerous contraband of all: pen and paper.
Lastly, there's Little Brother, an orphan raised in the jail, imprisoned by his own deprivation. Making his home in a tiny, corrugated-metal shack, Little Brother stays alive by killing rats and selling them to the inmates. As the political prisoner and the young boy forge a cautious friendship, we learn that both are prisoners of different orders; only one of them dreams of escape and only one of them achieves it.
Barely able to speak, losing the battle of the flesh but winning the battle of the spirit, Teza knows he has the power to transfigure one small life, and to send a message of hope and resistance out of the cage.
Shortlisted for both the Kiriyama Prize for Fiction and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, The Lizard Cage has received rave reviews nationally and internationally.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
The boy was twelve years old when he entered the Hsayadaw’s monastery school. As the newest novice, his became the smoothest bare head; he was given dark ochre robes and taught how to wear them. With his scavenger’s eye for opportunity, he saw how lucky he was. The men here gave him food, and a mat to sleep on beneath a wooden roof. He saw also that the school was a poor place, but the monks who ran it were generous with what little they had.
This didn’t stop him from jealously guarding his own possessions. He even refused to be parted with his filthy blanket. The monks said it should be thrown away, but he insisted on washing the thick swath of Chinese felt himself. When it was dry, he folded it with haughty care and placed it on his sleeping mat. The old Hsayadaw – abbot of the monastery school – observed this patiently, accustomed to children who clung to the relics of their old lives.
Because the boy had never been to school, he received lessons from his very own tutor, but sometimes the Hsayadaw excused the tutoring monk and sat down to teach the child himself. This seemed like a favour to the tutor, but the truth was that the abbot enjoyed teaching the boy. He had run the monastery school for more than forty years and this was the first time he’d ever seen an illiterate child dedicate himself so passionately to the alphabet. Learning his letters made the boy shine, and the old man liked to sit in that clean, honest light. They were both happy during these lessons, and their happiness made them laugh at almost nothing, a bird shooting through the leaves beyond the glassless window or the voice of the papaya-seller in the street, calling out the sweetness of her fruit. More than half a dozen times, in the middle of the night, the Hsayadaw caught the boy with a candle burning and a notebook open in his lap, his grubby hand drawing the thirty-three consonants and fifteen vowels of the Burmese alphabet over and over, and he had to force himself to be stern when he sent the child back to bed.
The boy’s name as a Buddhist novice was too long and tricky for him to write, so he insisted on learning how to spell his birth name. When he wrote it from memory for the first time, such was his jubilation that the tutoring monk whispered to the Hsayadaw, “He acts like he’s discovered the formula for turning lead into gold.” To which the abbot only smiled.
When he was not learning to read, or trying to write, he was quiet, sometimes sullen. He was a secretive, ever-hungry boy, uninterested in playing with the other children – though he often watched them as if they were animals he was afraid to approach. The abbot endeavoured not to pick favourites, but he adored this peculiar child. If only all of them were so interested in reading, and so dedicated to their Buddhist studies. Apparent to everyone, even the more recalcitrant monks, was that the boy had embraced the rituals of worship with surprising devotion. He sometimes spent hours in the temple, just sitting and watching the image of the Buddha. There hadn’t been a child like that for more than a decade.
The monastery was full of boys, large boys, small boys, boys with harelips and boys with flippered limbs, boys from poor families or with no families to speak of. The Hsayadaw adopted them all. The old proverb says that ten thousand birds can perch on one good tree; the Hsayadaw was such a tree. His children found refuge in him, and he taught them to seek a greater refuge in the Buddha’s Dhamma of Theravada, the teachings of the Middle Way. He did not cane his children or send them off, even if they misbehaved, because the state orphanages and reform schools were dangerous places.
The boy came to love the abbot with the same anxious tenderness he’d felt for the Songbird. This love declared itself through the laughter they shared during their lessons, through the tears the boy blinked away as he struggled with all the letters and their complex combinations. One morning, watching him wrestle with frustration, the Hsayadaw said, “It’s all right to cry. It’s just a little water that needs to get out. We could put it in a cup if you’re worried about losing it.” That made the boy laugh again, and his work became easier. For just over three months, he lived this way, making his path through hard terrain as quickly and gracefully as water.
But one morning, trouser-wearers appeared, two military intelligence agents who asked about him. They came again very late that night, and their shouts scared the children.
The Hsayadaw was calm with a lifetime of meditation, but inside he was afraid for his favourite son, so afraid that he broke the Fourth Precept: to abstain from telling lies. He knew it was wrong, but he lied to the military intelligence agents. Morning and evening, he told the men that the boy was very wild, and had run away. “What did you expect, with the way the child has been raised?”
“Did he take his belongings with him?” one of the men asked.
“Belongings? He was the poorest among poor, he had nothing but a bag of scraps and an old blanket. Of course he took them away.”
On their first visit, the morning meal was just beginning, and the military intelligence agents insisted upon walking slowly among all the children as they sat eating on the floor. But who was to know one particular novice among sixty-seven shaven-headed, hungry little monks? The boy they were searching for was also calm, calm with a short lifetime of surviving by his rat-stick and his wits. He went on eating with the other children. All of them kept their heads angled to the floor. They called out his name, demanding that he speak up if he were in the room. The boy didn’t even blink; he would never answer to the voices of the cage again. The men came back that night and performed the same theatre, but all they succeeded in doing was making a few boys burst into tears.
From the Hardcover edition.
Karen Connelly’s first book of poetry, The Small Words in My Body, won the Pat Lowther Award. Her first book of prose, Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal – an account of the year she spent in Thailand at seventeen – won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction in 1993; at twenty-four, she was the youngest writer ever to win that prize.
The Lizard Cage, Connelly’s first novel, was shortlisted for both the Kiriyama Prize for Fiction and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. To write it, she found she had to lock herself in the cage along with the main character. For nine long years she imagined she was trapped in a windowless, 8 x 10 jail cell. “I cried every day for the first four years that I worked on that book,” Connelly said in an interview with Reader’s Digest. “There were times when I thought I would never be free of it.” She went on to explain what helped to urge her forward, "I came to realize that I was making my contribution to the largely unwritten history of kindness. At least that's one of my motives–to contribute to the literature of how people retain and nurture their humanity, particularly in difficult situations."
Karen Connelly is currently working on a book of essays set in the refugee camps and among the rebel armies along the Burmese-Thai border. She makes her home in Toronto.
From the Hardcover edition.close this panel
Shortlisted for the 2006 International Kiriyama Prize
“A feat of epic vision…. The suspense never relents. Hope is small, but it lives, strengthened by this powerful book.”
–Maxine Hong Kingston, author of The Fifth Book of Peace
“These are stories that need to be told.”
“By turns delights, surprises and shocks. But even when writing of some of the darkest depths to which humanity can sink, Connelly’s poet’s heart shines through.… The resiliency of the human spirit is the beacon that informs this work.”
“The Lizard Cage is ridiculously and beautifully cinematic…. Connelly is an exacting writer. She burrows into scenes and surroundings and returns with startling imagery. There are great moments in the book, strung together like honed passages in a collection of poetry.”
–Quill & Quire
“Connelly’s writing is fluid and well-paced, and her fictive prison world, set in the actual political hellhole that is present-day Burma, is as affecting as any UN statistical report about the conditions of life in that ruined country.”
Praise for Karen Connelly:
"Karen Connelly has an enviable, somewhat disquieting ability to possess the spirit of a place. . . The unknown, the faraway, the endlessly strange spring to life in her work."
—Books in Canada
"Hers is an authentic voice, the voice of a born poet intoxicated by language."
—Atlantic Books Today
". . . a genius for framing the texture of daily life — the feel, the shape, the inner longing, the sounds — in language of sublime perfection."
—The Hamilton Spectator
"Touch the Dragon is a splendid evocation of a place and a people that remain, for most of us, in dreams. Few can record such dreams — but Karen Connelly has done so."
"Karen Connelly not only illuminates a society, but shows us, through the beauty, energy and humour of her language and imagery, how this strange place touched and changed her, allowing her to receive and understand a common humanity."