by Philip Delves Broughton
March 24, 2007

It is an unfortunate truth that of all the human-rights atrocities that ever come to light in the world, most end up as footnotes in government or NGO reports. Only the hardiest, horrific few prompt calls to action. Real-life tales of murder, rape and violent incarceration are interchangeable items of news, passing mention on the BBC World Service, if that.

In the case of Burma (now officially named Myanmar), the atrocities have been going on for so long and have been committed with such awful regularity and sameness that they have come to seem as much a feature of the Burmese landscape as the monsoon. When the world becomes thus inured to the ghastly crimes of faraway regimes, it is left to artists, writers and filmmakers to re-engage our attention. Karen Connelly does exactly this with "The Lizard Cage," a thrilling, depressing, vital excoriation of the military junta that has ruled Burma for decades.

The book is set in a prison close to Rangoon sometime in the mid-1990's. The prison cells groan with supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy activist and Nobel laureate, who lives under house arrest. None of the prisoners is more famous than a man named Teza, a singer, who has been banished to solitary confinement. Ms. Connelly's minute attention to the hell of prison life is both repulsive and compelling. Teza fights to retain his identity in the face of repeated beatings, starvation and appalling filth. His poignant recollections of life before his imprisonment-his girlfriend, his mother, the simple enjoyment of food and bathing-are almost as hard to bear as the punishment scenes.

Ms. Connelly also creates an extraordinary cast of prison grotesques-including a tattooed gangster who spends his days having young boys walk up and down his back and a toothless, duplicitous soothsayer who will betray anyone to reduce his sentence. The regime has made wretches of them all. The warders are violent, machinating or guilt-ridden while the prisoners struggle to survive as best they can. Caught in the middle of this misery is a 12-year-old boy, orphaned when his father, a low-ranked prison warder, is run over by a truck. He makes his home in a shack at the edge of the prison and spends his days running errands, avoiding the gaze of the deviant prison cook. He does not even imagine escaping this hell until he is encouraged by Teza and a sympathetic guard.

Ms. Connelly's novel is grounded in the accounts of thos who survived Burma's jails and escaped to the Thai border. She spent two years on the border living among the exiles. Her language and imagery evoke the short stories and poems that trickle out of Burma, by turns fearful and violent, beautiful and rancid. They speak equally of spiritual and physical escape, the one always possible even when the other is forcibly denied.

Reading "The Lizard Cage" is an uncomfortable experience, not least because we do so in the knowledge that Burma has not changed.


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