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The Burman of Alcatraz

It takes a certain amount of faith and courage to set a novel of more than 500 pages almost solely within the confines of a prison. The very nature of prison life -- its repetitiveness, the limited cast of characters, the sameness of detail -- can break the back of the most tenacious reader. Karen Connelly avoids these obvious pitfalls in The Lizard Cage, largely through her measured and graceful writing. 

In this, her debut novel, Connelly demonstrates the considerable gifts that won her the Governor-General's Award in 1993 for Touch the Dragon: A Thai Journal, and which set the stage for her emergence as one of Canada's most clear-eyed poets and travel writers. 

It's likely that future reviews of her works will list The Lizard Cage among her accomplishments, alongside her Governor-General's Award. 

In this novel, as in her previous books, there is a restless search for truth in a complex and sometimes tarnished world. The novel follows the prison routine of Teza, a Burmese protest singer who, while languishing in solitary confinement, tries to establish some significance to all that transpires within his squalid cell. From years of observing the insects on his wall and listening to the birds on the ramparts, he concludes, "Everything speaks. . . . Through messages they build their invisible, invincible world." The importance of messages, of communication and kinship, runs throughout the book. Teza recalls a boyhood fantasy that his name ("the fire of glory") was like a message to be passed on. 

But there is little glorious about his prison life. After seven years in solitary confinement, he is ravaged by malnutrition and by the brutal punishment meted out by Handsome, the junior jailer. Teza longs to talk with someone, to "close the gap in his thoughts." At one point, his server, Sein Yun, fulfills this wish, but only because he wants to entrap the singer. In the midst of this torment, Teza finds solace in meditation and in the belief that he cannot be silenced. In spite of their power, his captors cannot crush him. "Words written down outlive the vulnerability of the flesh," he thinks. "His songs still fly through the air like swallows." 

There are constant references in this novel to words, to poets and singers as agents for change, particularly in a ruthless regime where everything else has been taken away. And perhaps this book, by shedding some light on the brutality and abuses in Burma, by giving voices and faces to those who silently suffer, can stir the conscience of the wider world more effectively than all the dry reports and statistics and polemical tracts. In this sense, Connelly reminds me of Latin American writers and poets like Pablo Neruda, who wrote so eloquently about the ills of their homelands. 

Like these writers, too, Connelly finds beauty and kindness and the potential for redemption in the most unexpected places. In The Lizard Cage, there's Chit Naing, the senior jailer, and Little Orphan, a child prisoner, both of whom are transformed through their interaction with the singer. And in the midst of his degradation, Teza contemplates the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. 

In spite of the violence depicted on the pages of The Lizard Cage, this is a quiet and well-thought-out novel. There are no gratuitous scenes, no shrillness, no pandering to particular audiences. Instead there are graceful images and observations which, most likely, will remain with the reader long after he or she has put aside the book. "Shoes bereft of feet are capable of making terrible accusations," Connelly writes. Elsewhere, in describing a spider, "It's the colour of a tiny, dirty copper pot. When the bulbous back catches the light, the copper becomes iridescent, an alchemist's metal. It glints gold, then a sheen of blue-green rises toward copper again. At dusk the creature deepens to red, then fades with the invisible sun." 

Passages like these bear the imprint of an experienced writer attuned to minute and subtle details. Throughout, there are innumerable instances where the perceptiveness of the travel writer blends with the lyricism of the poet. I'm sure that somewhere, a reader unfamiliar with Connelly will, after reading this book, mistakenly assume that she is a much older writer. 

The novel, though, is not without its minor flaws. Bits of dialogue are sometimes too contrived and, in some places, unnecessary; and the photographs, taken by Connelly, though evocative, could have been placed in a separate section rather than throughout the book. But these are modest quibbles. The Lizard Cage ranks with the best books written about Southeast Asia. In spite of its subject matter, it is neither pessimistic nor gloomy. Rather, it is a compassionate, honest and moving exploration of faith and endurance. 

Connelly’s characters are believable not only because of her familiarity with their culture, but also, I believe, because she cares about them. One hopes other readers will also get a slice of her perspective after they've completed this book.

as reviewed by Rabindranath Maharaj in The Globe and Mail, October 1, 2005


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