Every once in a while, I read a book that I want to tell everyone to read. The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly is one of those novels. These are the reasons why:
- It’s beautifully written.
- It’s about an important subject.
- It’s stayed with me.
- It’s made me more aware of all I can be grateful for.
- It makes me proud to be a fellow writer.
How can a novel accomplish all this? I suppose I should start with what The Lizard Cage is about. The novel takes place in Burma (Myanmar) and is about a young political prisoner, Teza the singer, who inspires and infuriates the people around him with his songs and his spirituality. He is a hero, but a believably human one, who struggles with longings, pain, loneliness, hope and love. The other inmates and the warders are alike trapped in the prison, some relying on brutality, others loyalty to survive it. The only one capable of leaving, if he chooses, is an orphaned boy. Brought up in the prison, he feels contained there, the only world he knows, and is suspicious and fearful of the outside. But he longs to read even more than he hungers to eat–and that is his key, if he’ll use it.
Karen Connelly faced a challenge that I also faced with Web of Angels: how to turn non-fiction into literature, moving from knowledge and passion about a subject to a narrative that equally serves both the subject and story-making. She succeeds brilliantly. She does so with exquisite craft. She never shies away from the reality of tyranny, of deprivation or torture, but I didn’t feel depressed reading this novel. The beauty of her writing and the compassionate rendering of every character made space for this reality while containing more than it.
Teza’s faith, his Buddhist practice, enables him to come to peace in the most brutal of environments, threading his way through rage and pain to find the love beyond it. The Lizard Cage is also an embodiment of this practice.
While I was reading it, I took notice of my blessings: abundant food, well regulated intestines, a bathtub full of water, books at my fingertips, and most of all the freedom to write.
In a totalitarian regime, literature is dangerous and literature is precious. The prisoners prize reading and writing materials and the warders fear them above all else. A simple retractable stick pen is the instrument of terror, retribution, and salvation.
I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with my friend, R, who is a recent immigrant from Iran. She told me that in Iran, the government has been closing down humanities’ departments because they make people think and change their minds, which is dangerous. Here, too, humanities’ departments have been shrunk, albeit for a different reason (or is it?): because they don’t make money.
I’m glad I live in a country so much at peace that literature is neither feared nor revered. That is the price of our peace–a certain complacency. At the same time, The Lizard Cage has reminded me of what is really important: love, freedom, creativity–and to practice a lightness of spirit for all the rest. Maybe for that, too.
The Lizard Cage is a novel about Burma, it’s a novel about human rights, and it’s a novel about the human capacity for dignity and indignity. Most of all, it’s about the power of the voice. Here’s a small taste of Connelly’s writing, picked out at random:
The air smells of warming earth and green stuff and flowers. Two old generators, gutted of all usable bits, sit at odd angles against the first brick wall, sunk in several inches of water; they are surrounded by a few desicated car batteries and some discarded latrine pails. Morning glories have taken over one generator, and vines grow through the rust holes in the pails. The boy steps close to the burgeoning purple flowers and carefully gathers a collection. The wilt almost immediately, but that doesn’t matter. Flowers in one hand, new stone in the other, he turns and scans the back of the kitchen and the hospital. (p. 213)