The Lizard Cage

The Lizard Cage

4.0 4
by Karen Connelly
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

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

See more details below

Overview

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.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Lorraine Adams
Although this is the award-winning Canadian poet and travel writer’s first novel, her writing is muscular and taut, bringing inmates and warders fully alive. Still more impressive, she avoids anything so trite as an affirmation of the human spirit in the face of injustice.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Connelly won the Governor General's Award for Nonfiction with Dream of a Thousand Lives: A Sojourn in Thailand, and her debut novel revisits Southeast Asia to soulful effect. Imprisoned in a mid-'90s Rangoon gulag, dissident singer/songwriter Teza stalks and eats the acrobatic lizards that venture across his cell's ceiling at sundown. Senior jailer Nyunt Wai Oo angles for a promotion by scheming to plant contraband writing materials inside the celebrated Teza's cage. The plot backfires when Teza inadvertently passes the proscribed ballpoint to the illiterate, resourceful serving boy, Nyi Lay, who hoards the pen for dear life. As the entire prison is shaken down and Teza and Nyi Lay are tortured nearly to death, a bond of brotherhood develops between the lowly Nyi Lay and Teza. The gangster inmate on the ward, Tan-see Tiger, who oversees an in-house smuggling operation, completes the triangle; he and Teza realize that the only measure of liberation left to them lies in making sure Nyi Lay leaves the prison camp alive. A brutal expos with harrowing descriptions of prison life and heavily spiritual overtones, Connelly's novel combines a thrillerlike pace with finely etched portraits that show how each character takes control of his own freedom. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Canadian poet Connelly (The Border Surrounds Us) could not resist including poetry in her debut novel. Her poems, sometimes deliberately fragmental, are targeted at the military regime of Myanmar, embodying that suppressed nation's cry for freedom and desire to seek truth from its own history. The novel is a political thriller centered on Teza, a nonviolent, prodemocracy activist in solitary confinement because of his participation in the 1988 demonstrations against the government. Enduring brutality and betrayal, Teza develops a friendship with Zaw Gyi, a 12-year-old orphan who serves food to the prisoners, and becomes determined to help the boy escape the inhumane environment. Connelly's sensitive choice of words makes much of the novel a pleasure to read. Her account of Teza's experiences in prison through his interaction with various small creatures at times makes it seem as if the protagonist were in a reverie observing nature. It's a pity, then, that Connelly lowers her writing standards to include graphic descriptions of prisoner beatings and child molestation, apparently to sustain the reader's interest; this move wrecks the tone of an otherwise successful novel. An optional purchase for public libraries.
—Victor Or
Kirkus Reviews
The anguished story of one protestor's resistance against the political oppression in Burma. Canadian travel writer and poet Connelly's fiction debut paints a portrait of the suffering of the people of Myanmar, where a military dictatorship rules the country harshly, bringing about the torture and incarceration of political opponents. In an appalling jail holding 10,000 people in foul conditions, corrupt jailers not only treat the inmates savagely and starve them, but punish the political detainees worse, extending their sentences for years, for transgressions like concealing pens and paper in their cells. Teza, a nationally beloved composer and singer of liberation songs, has been sentenced to 20 years of confinement, to be spent in a solitary cell called the teak coffin. Some of the most compelling scenes here illustrate the minute events of Teza's days-he is now into the seventh year of his sentence. He hunts lizards to augment his meager rations; savors memories of his family, his girlfriend and his friendship with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi; and uses meditation to free his mind. Double-crossed by his server (who delivers his food and removes his waste), Teza is nearly caught with writing materials in his possession. A brutal jailer, furious that the plot to extend Teza's sentence failed, beats him horribly, breaking his jaw. Now Teza is moved to a different cell, where his server is a 12-year-old orphan boy who lives at the prison. The child, reminiscent of Teza's own brother but also a symbol of the future of the nation, is illiterate and vulnerable, yet the singer enables him to escape to a monastery school, while simultaneously planning his own escape, a spiritual release that, aided byhis Buddhist devotion, will allow him to transcend the cruelty of his persecutors. A lyrical, if overlong and occasionally reductive, work-but at its core, a heartfelt humanitarian plea. Agent: Jackie Kaiser/Westwood Creative Artists Ltd.
From the Publisher
National bestseller
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.”
NOW (Toronto)

“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.”
National Post

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.”
Edmonton Journal

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."
—Timothy Findley

"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."
—Christopher Wiseman

Read More

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780099502470
Publisher:
Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
03/28/2008

Read an Excerpt

The Lizard Cage


By Karen Connelly

Random House

Karen Connelly
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0679310223


Chapter One

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.


Excerpted from The Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >