The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly
The beginning only made sense to me once I’d gotten to the end; then I had to go back and read it. Reading it a second time made my heart unfurl from the anxiety that had wound itself around it throughout but especially closer to the end. It was as happy an ending as Karen Connelly’s The Lizard Cage could give its reader, and it had come at the beginning.
The bulk of the book is an unflinching look inside of a Burmese prison from the perspectives of a political prisoner, two of the guards (one kind, one sadistic), and an orphaned boy who has never known anything different and who though he has committed no crime is as trapped as the other prisoners.
The clearly carefully researched* book, details the routines of prison life, from such an immersive point of view that the reader feels trapped in the violence and stench of it. I was just about to type the hopelessness of it but that would be incorrect because, in spite of all, this is not a hopeless book.
From the earliest pages, the Songbird, the political whose imprisonment introduces us to life in the prison, is a beacon of hope because in spite of all he has endured, and will endure throughout the pages of the book, he remains a pure spirit; a good man not bound by hate who ultimately frees himself though he will probably never leave the prison.
As a reader, your sympathies easily ally with his, well until the boy enters the story – after he becomes responsible for feeding the prisoner and dealing with his latrine pail – after a particularly horrible beating instigated by a sting and a pen. Yes, in this world, a pen is considered contraband, because in oppressive regimes words and ideas are perhaps the most dangerous weapons.
It’ll make you think, if you’re an artiste and a writer, there but for the grace of God, go I; and remind you how important it is to protect the freedoms we enjoy, how fragile even democratic traditions can be. No society is immune. So, even though we’re reading about Burma, now Myanmar, we’re really reading about possibilities if we zing instead of zang as a society.
It speaks as well to how oppressive regimes depend on the poison infecting all levels. From the fellow prisoner who will sell out even a little boy for his own ends to the prison officer who enjoys his job just a little too much. The prison officer they call Handsome, I can say, is one of the most horrific characters I have come across in fiction, so much so that by the time I read about the trauma that helped shape him, I didn’t care about the little boy he himself once was anymore. I did something the man who suffered the most at the end of his fist, Songbird, didn’t; I hated him. But then Songbird is intimately connected, in a way few are, with spirit – the ghosts of his ancestors, the God he worships, his faith, including, inexplicably, his faith in the human spirit.
He places that faith in the boy, he places that faith in the other prison officer I mentioned, a decent enough man trying to do the best he can to be a decent human being in spite of the system in which he works.
The title of the book refers on one level to the reptiles, insects, and vermin who share space with the humans in the book – both Songbird and the boy treat them as worthy of life, though one because of his Buddhist principles and the other because they are the only friends he has. The Lizard Cage is also symbolic – it’s about everything’s right to life and food and freedom, it’s about being trapped by forces larger than you, it’s about how being in a cage doesn’t have to make you forget your humanity (the way some of the other prisoners look out for the boy is another hopeful note in the book).
There are moments in the book that will have you punching air in anger, in rage; I wanted to hurt anyone who hurt the boy – and they did.
I can’t say anymore without giving too much away; I want you to enjoy the same stomach coiling tension I did. And, no, that’s not the sadist in me talking.
A dark and emotional read, but you won’t regret spending the time.
*The author is a Canadian who travelled to, reported on, and lived in Burma and on the Burmese-Thai border over several years, who engaged in activism at home in support of the cause, and who, based on the extensive list of acknowledgments, worked with (as primary and secondary sources, and first-readers-for-feedback) numerous Burmese people (other writers, reporters, political prisoners, freedom fighters etc.) to ensure the authenticity of the book and who also took the time to recommend specific published writings by Burmese writers writing their own existence. The result is a book that, though a work of fiction, has a documentary feel; and though written by a non-Burmese author shows great awareness of and respect for Burmese people and culture; and though clearly a protest novel in its way, siding against the regime, layers in the complexity of the country and its situation at that time in relatively recent history. Of course, I say this as someone who has not read any Burmese literature before this; so take this for what its worth. But in the conversation on whether you can or should tell a story that’s culturally not your own (remember the whole Lionel Shriver debate?), especially as a writer in the mainstream (read: white, western) writing a culture that very rarely gets to tell its own tale (read: non-western, non-white), this to me is an example of a book that really works to approach it in a respectful way and largely succeeds in doing so. The Lizard Cage, released in 2005, won the Orange Broadband Prize for New Writers and was Long Listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.