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Dwarfed by China and India, obscure and inconsequential Burma—the setting of Canadian author Karen Connelly’s debut novel, The Lizard Cage—cannot even boast the name recognition of Vietnam and other countries on the Indochinese peninsula. Even more confusing, Burma was renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the military junta that seized power a year earlier. But opposition activists, including those featured in the novel, continue to refer to the country as Burma. We meet Teza, one such activist, languishing in a horrendous prison brimming with both political dissidents and hardened criminals. Teza’s stirring odes to freedom—crooned in a distinctly mellifluous voice—earned him the moniker “the Singer,” but they also prompted the tyrannical regime to sentence him to solitary confinement. Seven years into a 20-year sentence, he has transmogrified into “a man with dark eyes and famine wrists, black hair grown to his shoulders.” Though Teza’s dreamy meditations on spiritual purity occasionally tax the reader’s patience, his budding friendships with a sympathetic warder and an orphan who lives on the prison grounds infuse the story with vitality as well as pathos. Senior jailer Chit Naing can no longer abide the cruelty of the place; he warily cultivates a rapport with Teza, and “as the old loyalties desiccate and the danger intensifies, he feels lighter and younger than he has in years.” Nyi Lay, a 12-year-old orphan who, in return for ramshackle lodging, has worked in the prison since the age of 7, also discovers in the devoutly Buddhist and strangely serene Teza a humanity lacking in most inmates. Though Teza remains confined throughout the novel, Connelly deftly utilizes plot strands involving the tribulations of Nyi Lay and Chit Naing to sustain interest in a story that is almost entirely set in one location.The three characters’ trajectories eventually converge: A series of terrifying events leads to Teza being beaten nearly to death, Chit Naing falling under surveillance on orders of the chief warden, and Nyi Lay’s position at the jail becoming untenable. To save Nyi Lay, the three must do something unprecedented: trust one another. Faith in one’s fellow man is hard to come by in an environment specifically designed to nurture fear and betrayal, yet “you cannot remain human if you never trust another person.” The novel is set in 1995, seven years after the tumultuous student protests that quickly attained legendary status, and coincides with the ruling junta’s temporary release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, “[t]he woman with flowers in her hair who faced down an army.” Her release prompts the warders to step up their torment of political prisoners like Teza. But despite Connelly’s clear emotional affinity for the struggle of Burmese democracy activists, she steers clear of didacticism, expertly balancing a sense of the larger political picture with details of the personal struggles of the protagonists. The Lizard Cage explores the agonizing saga of ordinary people resolutely seeking freedom and democracy in a long-forgotten corner of the world. For these brash revolutionaries, stoic prisoners, and everyday dissidents, “it [doesn’t] matter that the Western world [is] already making fun of democracy’s many failures and hypocrisies. The Burmese [don’t] have that luxury.”
The Lizard Cage, By Karen Connelly, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 431 pp., $26