published in the New York Times Review of Books
May 27, 2007
Amoebic dysentery, maggots, sadistic guards, a reeking latrine pail — these are the constants in Karen Connelly's tale of political prisoners in Burma, a novel that, at least initially, makes you wonder who will read on, through scenes featuring little more than truncheons and gruel, to puzzle over the unexpected, alien detail — a white pen — at the center of the plot. And who will care about the novel's main characters, a 12-year-old orphan who kills rats for a living and a skeletal dissident in solitary confinement, reduced to eating the lizards he traps inside his cell?
Yet so consummate is Connelly's skill in "The Lizard Cage" that such elements compel us to keep turning the pages. Although this is the award-winning Canadian poet and travel writer's first novel, her writing is muscular and taut, bringing inmates and warders fully alive. Still more impressive, she avoids anything so trite as an affirmation of the human spirit in the face of injustice.
In "The Gulag Archipelago," Alexander Solzhenitsyn asked: "Can you behead a man whose head has already been cut off? You can. Can you skin the hide off a man when he has already been skinned? You can! This was all invented in our camps." A similar absurdity infuses Connelly's story. She seems to have learned it and other crucial lessons from the great masters of the literature of political incarceration. Like China's Wei Jingsheng, a democracy activist jailed for nearly two decades whose prison letters were published as "The Courage to Stand Alone," she knows that even a tenuous bond with another living creature can bolster the soul. Wei raised rabbits. Connelly's prisoner studies ants.
Even more crucial, Connelly realizes — as Nelson Mandela explained in "Long Walk to Freedom," an account of his 27 years of detention in South Africa — that "the most important person in any prisoner's life is not the minister of justice, not the commissioner of prisons, not even the head of the prison, but the warder in one's section."
Connelly's prisoner has two warders. The man known as Handsome induces a palm-reading gem smuggler, working in the prison delivering rations, to plant the white pen, the most serious form of contraband, on his charge. Handsome then uses this as an excuse to beat the prisoner, splintering his jaw, punching his face until his eye swells shut and breaking his toes — all in a search for the pen. The second warder, a senior jailer, takes a very different tack, ordering that the prisoner be given morphine and bringing him precious food. It is he who, in the end, understands the significance of the white pen.
This senior jailer, like Mandela's warder Christo Brand, develops a rich relationship with the solitary prisoner. In Connelly's novel, the jailer recruits the young orphan to smuggle the prisoner's writings to the outside world, much as one of Mandela's fellow prisoners spirited parts of his manuscript out of Robben Island. The penalty, in the South Africa of the 1970s and in the 1990s Myanmar of Connelly's novel, is, at the least, a further extension of an already inhumanely long sentence. More likely, it will lead to torture or execution.
The brutal force of incarceration dominates and corrodes everything for a political prisoner, so the written word, comparatively immaterial, acquires added power. Newspapers, Mandela observed, were "the most precious contraband on Robben Island. News was the intellectual raw material of the struggle." He and his fellow inmates scrambled to retrieve bits of newspaper that had held the warders' sandwiches. In Connelly's novel, the equivalent is the Burmese cheroot, whose filters are wrapped in newsprint. Carefully unraveling them, the prisoner reads the fragmented poetry of the outside world: "loved / despite everything / rain / understood." "The generals can't stop them," the prisoner says. "Words are like the ants. They work their way through the thickest walls, eating through bricks and feeding off the very silence intended to stifle them."
General Ne Win, a Burmese enamored of Marx and Stalin, ruled his country for 26 years. Rumored to bathe himself in dolphin blood, he reissued the nation's currency in multiples of nine, his lucky number, and was the object of student protests that brought Aung San Suu Kyi to prominence in 1988. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 and has been incarcerated or under house arrest for varying lengths of time since 1989.
Connelly, who visited Myanmar frequently in the 1990s and lived along the Thai-Myanmar border for two years, lists Aung San Suu Kyi in her acknowledgements as one of the many people she interviewed. The country's ruling military junta recently banned Connelly from returning.
She brings to mind another Westerner, George Orwell, who served as a British imperial police officer in Burma in the 1920s and based his first novel, "Burmese Days," on the experience. As Emma Larkin points out in "Finding George Orwell in Burma," there's a joke in the region about Orwell, that he wrote not one novel about the country but three: "Burmese Days," "Animal Farm" and "1984."
Orwell's essay "A Hanging" forcefully contemplates the subject of oppression, rather than its instrument. In it, he recalled watching as a prisoner stepped aside to avoid a puddle on the walk to the gallows. "Till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man," Orwell wrote. "When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive."
Connelly's novel accomplishes something Orwell never managed: it gets inside the head of that "conscious man." Her prisoner's innermost self is laid bare in the pages of "The Lizard Cage" — even his most unbecoming moments. Unlike Wei or Mandela, who wrote for a public that had enshrined them as heroic figures, Connelly's fictional character has no constituency, no reputation to uphold. Through him, she shows us what autobiography usually veils: the human spirit not at its most defiant and brave, but as it really is and can only be.
Lorraine Adams, a writer in residence at the New School and the author of a novel, "Harbor," is a regular contributor to the Book Review.