Torture is the strategy that we Americans have resorted to in this, our Age of Terror. Karen Connelly, a Canadian who has lived in Asia and Europe, has written a vitally important book, The Lizard Cage, which dramatizes a world where the powerful can force intimate cruelties upon the weak. The world shrinks to the size of a cage that holds but one man.
For singing songs of protest against the military dictatorship in Burma, Teza is sentenced to 20 years in solitary confinement. Prison does not keep out the country’s politics but rather concentrates it. The jailers and the jailed must take some stance. The cost of a merciful act can be one’s own survival. Teza is attractive to everyone who comes across him. He is innocent and loving; he is a famous popular musician. Others are moved to trust him, to help him, to use him, to destroy him.
Another innocent who lives in the prison is a nameless orphan; his father had been a guard. Teza calls the boy "Free El Salvador" after the logo on his t-shirt, and begins to teach him to read. Chit Naing, the senior jailer (a secret rebel sympathizer), also tries to free the boy; he should leave the prison for the city outside. But where could he live that would be better for him than this confinement?
Scene after scene, The Lizard Cage tests whether Buddhist practices have efficacy in a murderous culture. At the start, the starving Teza struggles whether or not to kill and eat the delicious lizards who visit him. Soon we face the question of how to use violence against the military. Teza composes and sings a song for his brother, Aung Min, a guerilla freedom fighter at the border:
Brother, sometimes I fear for you
Will you enter a new era
only to make up another word for murder?
I cannot see the weapons you carry
only that warped guitar
In a feat of epic vision, Karen Connelly uses her every art—poetry, song, photography—to tell the urgent story of what The New York Times calls "Myanmar, arguably the most repressive regime in the world." Throughout the text, there are black-and-white photos that give the effect of documentary. Reality breaks through the spell of fiction. Aung San Suu Kyi appears as a character, inspiring her people. The many pages of acknowledgments also serve to convince the reader that The Lizard Cage is not merely a work of the imagination. Such insistence may be necessary when an author writes a story that is playing out in actuality even as she writes. The suspense never relents. Will the orphan boy be able to carry Teza’s last song to the outside world? Hope is small, but it lives, strengthened by this powerful book.
Reviewed by Maxine Hong Kingston