The Lizard Cage by Karen ConnellyThe Lizard Cage by Karen Connelly

The Lizard Cage

byKaren Connelly

Paperback | March 6, 2007

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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.


From the Hardcover edition.
Karen Connelly’s first book of poetry, The Small Words in My Body, won the Pat Lowther Award. Her first book of prose, Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal – an account of the year she spent in Thailand at seventeen – won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction in 1993; at twenty-four, she was the youngest writer ever to win t...
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Title:The Lizard CageFormat:PaperbackDimensions:448 pages, 8.25 × 5.47 × 0.95 inPublished:March 6, 2007Publisher:Random House of CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0679313281

ISBN - 13:9780679313281

Reviews

Rated 5 out of 5 by from Full of striking metaphors Trigger warning: this book contains graphic depictions of child sexual assault. This book allows the reader to understand a complex conflict from multiple, diverse perspectives. Leaves you reflecting for days.
Date published: 2017-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Incredibly worthwhile I wouldn’t have chosen this book based on its subject matter alone: the story of an unlikely friendship between Teza (a Burmese political prisoner) and Little Brother (a 12-year-old orphan who’s grown up within the prison). It just sounds too grim. But I read a review that compelled me to read this wonderful novel. I’m happy that I read it, and hope I can nudge others to read it too. The writing is beautiful and vivid, especially the passages about Buddhism. The viewpoint effectively and refreshingly shifts. The prison’s relationships and power structure are fascinating and believable. All that makes The Lizard Cage a wonderful book.
Date published: 2014-11-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful read This book has made it in to my all time top ten list. really compelling story with terrific character development. Connolly spins such a yarn that I really would recommend this to anyone. It is the story of "The Singer" who is a political prisoner in Burma and the world in which he lives. The descriptions of what goes on in his mind are truly amazing.
Date published: 2009-11-11

Read from the Book

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.From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. As she wrote The Lizard Cage, Karen Connelly imagined she was trapped in a windowless 8 x 10 jail cell just like her main character. Did the novel prompt you to imagine yourself in solitary confinement? How do you think you’d cope with the kind of isolation and sensory deprivation that Teza endures?2. When Little Brother takes stock of his meager belongings, he “knows he is rich.” Half-starved, his body aching from a recent beating, Teza muses that “happiness is the absence of lice.” What role does gratitude play in the novel?3. “The paradox fascinates him–as the old loyalties desiccate and the danger intensifies, he feels lighter and younger than he has in years.” How does Chit Naing evolve as a character over the course of the novel?4. In the second half of the novel, Handsome recalls a beating he received as a small child, “His body was shaking violently, milk teeth clacking together.” Did this scene alter your view of him? What does the novel have to say about the cyclical nature of violence? How do some characters manage to break the cycle?5. Prior to The Lizard Cage, Karen Connelly published four volumes of poetry and two books of travel writing. How are her varied writing skills at work in her first novel?6. The Lizard Cage does not portray an alternative, disguised version of Burma, it is a story that could actually happen today. How aware were you of the Burmese dictatorship before reading the novel? Did it make you look any differently at your own life within a prosperous free democracy?7. For those of you who meditate, were you inspired by Teza’s ability to “breathe himself out of the coffin”? If you’ve never meditated, what do you make of the view that “your breath is your teacher”?8. Aug Min observes of Little Brother, “This was an old child locked in an old hunger.” Discuss the role of hunger – emotional, physical and spiritual – in The Lizard Cage.9. Little Brother tries unsuccessfully to teach himself to read. His longing to make meaning out of the letters is mirrored by Teza’s hunger for the written word. Discuss the power of language in the novel.10. Every character in The Lizard Cage has different ways of surviving the harsh realities of prison life. What helps Teza/Jailer Chit Naing/Little Brother survive the brutality of the cage? What helps Sein Yun/Jailer Handsome? If you found yourself in the prison of the novel, how do you think you would manage?11. The author has said in interviews that Jailer Chit Naing is her favourite character in the book, because “he struggles in the way so many of us struggle.” What do you think she means by that?12. Even though Teza eats the lizards in his cell for sustenance, he does so with respect and regret. Little Brother, too, has very important “relationships” with lizards and other creatures. Why are these relationships so important for each of these characters?13. Why does Teza allow himself to trust the rather untrustworthy Sein Yun? Apart from what he hopes to gain, why does Sein Yun betray him and the other politicals?14. Teza relies daily on his strong Buddhist faith, particularly his meditation practice. Is The Lizard Cage a Buddhist book? How are some of the basic beliefs of Buddhism similar to those of other faiths? How are they different?15. Little Brother believes the lizard that changes colour is a kind of little god, and he believes in the mysterious power of the spirit of the tree. He believes in the Buddha, too, and actively recalls his Muslim father praying early in the morning. How do all these different beliefs help him?16. Teza and Little Brother slowly come to form a profound friendship, as do Teza and Jailer Chit Naing. What is it about Teza that draws them both to him?17. Why is Chit Naing willing to sacrifice his safety for Teza, for Little Brother, and even for the political movement against the dictatorship?18. One of the key objects in the novel is a pen. Lost and found, and changing owners several times, it acts as the trigger for much of the action and tension in the story. Is the pen a weapon? A talisman? Or something cursed?

Editorial Reviews

National bestsellerShortlisted 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 JournalPraise 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