This book has a strange path to my list of favorite books of all time I’m still working my way through the library shelves (and yes, I’m only on the C’s) and came across The Lizard Cage on my last trip out. I have a huge pile of “serious” books to read for my professional life, so this felt a little extravagant and I almost returned it without reading it, but serendipity happened and, while I was listening to the audio book (review forthcoming) of The End of Your Life Book Club, The Lizard Cage came up as one of Will Schwalbe’s and his mother’s favorite books. So, after finishing Dan Brown’s Inferno (review forthcoming), with great anticipation, I started The Lizard Cage.
Reading this book is a meditation. It’s absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful and awful and awfully beautiful.
Set in Burma seemingly in the 90s, the book begins with a child in a monastery sought by what seem ominous figures for what he carries in his bag. The scene then changes to the cage, the prison in which the Songbird, named for his politically motivated lyrics, Teza, is held in solitary confinement, where he watches ants, cockroaches, and a spider to retain his sanity and hunts and eats lizards, despite his Buddhist beliefs, to survive. Teza meditates and reminisces about his childhood and the youth that led him to the prison. He interacts with various servers and warders who display a range of degrees of humanity. The first “friend” the reader meets is his server, who brings his food and empties his latrine pail. He brings cheroots, which Teza smokes, but which bring a greater gift, the newsprint in which they are wrapped, which he carefully unwinds and reads as cryptic messages, a modern poetry of the oppressed, from the outside. In contrapose to the server/friend is Handsome, the warder, whose violence sits on his face and moves in his gait.
Connelly creates an amazing sense of space and community within the confines of the solitary cell. The reader hears the prison beyond move and breathe through Teza’s ears and his reminisces of former warders and servers. When she introduces an orphan boy who lives within the confines of the cage, however, the reader begins to see the cage as even more cruel than through the eyes of Teza in solitary. Connelly suggests that Teza’s solitary world is safer than that of Free El Salvador, as we know him from his t-shirt, a donation from the west, the irony of which seems to escape all but Teza.
This idea of safety is not the only presumption Connelly builds in the first part of the novel that she turns on its head in the second part. Teza’s server/friend becomes the tool for his near physical destruction and possible mental destruction when he tries to lure him into an act of writing, an act forbidden in the prison, especially for politicals, that would extend Teza’s sentence in order to decrease the server’s own. Handsome’s villainy is not undone, rather magnified in his actions, but a flashback to his own childhood complicates the simple outlines of good and evil constructed in the novel’s opening.
Through his treachery, Teza meets Free El Salvador, probably twelve years old, who becomes his new server. The words on his t-shirt spike Teza’s interest, a chance to read, to see text every day, and the boy and his plight become Teza’s hold on his hope for humanity following his server/friend’s betrayal. Together with an ally and former warder, Chit Naing, Teza works to free Free El Salvador from the cage and from the boy’s fears of leaving home. Connelly releases the reader from one anxiety, as we know Free El Salvador makes it to the outside because we meet him there at the novel’s beginning, and gives the reader hope through Chit Naing, who has worked in the prison system for years and who chooses the path of compassion and selflessness despite the danger to himself.
Connelly cares for the reader in other ways. When the brutality and inhumanity of the cage and the world that created it becomes too much, she leads us into meditation with Teza. Like an experienced yoga instructor, Connelly brings the reader into focus and gives us refuge in our breaths. Life is suffering, she relates as Buddha’s first teaching, and the novel’s plot supports that, but how we handle that suffering defines who we are, as the varying responses of her characters also demonstrate.
I will never forget Teza, Free El Salvador, or Chit Naing. That Connelly lived in Burma and has written nonfiction on the plight of the people there heightened my horror at the events in the novel, which she says in her afterword are based on the experiences of people she met in prison camps across Burma. I will never again hear the name Myanmar on the news and not think of the government’s attempt to whitewash its history, to rebrand itself for the sake of western consciences. The big question becomes, as I believe Connelly intends, how will I respond, what action will I take, in response to the suffering she has laid bare? What is my character?