Karen Connelly
New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2008
439 pp., $14.00 (paper)

AT TWELVE minutes past noon on May 17, 1954, the Sixth Buddhist Council convened in Rangoon, Burma: twenty-five hundred saffron-robed monks from across the Theravada world assembled in a specially constructed cave-temple on the outskirts of the capital. The first Buddhist Council is said to have convened in the year of Buddha’s death and codified the original Pali canon. The 1954 meeting focused on reconciling the canonical texts from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to correct any divergence or errors that might have slipped in over the prior two and a half millennia. The first prime minister of postcolonial Burma personally addressed the monastic throng, with fifty thousand spectators in attendance. In December of that year, the Great Council was joined by another thousand monks and lay practitioners of all sects for the World Buddhist Fellowship Conference, bringing representatives from Tibet, Japan, the United States, and several nations of Europe. There could be little doubt that this young democracy was at the nexus of the modern Buddhist world.

The Lizard Cage, Canadian writer Karen Connelly’s bleak but deeply engrossing novel about life in a modern Burmese prison, vividly illustrates just how precipitously Burma has fallen since those glorious days. Within a decade of that remarkable year, a military coup had plunged the country into an authoritarian darkness from which it has not emerged. Generations of Western Buddhists now know Burma—renamed Myanmar in 1989 by the repressive regime—only as an embodiment of collective suffering, a perennial source of sorrow. The brief monk-led demonstrations last summer, crushed so harshly by the military junta, were followed this year by the wanton destruction wreaked by Cyclone Nargis—just the latest chapters in Burma’s thoroughly wretched recent history. Now in paperback with a new afterword by the author, The Lizard Cage provides an unflinching look at the nightmare Burma has become.

The book begins at the end, with a young boy newly ordained as a novice monk. He is learning to read at a monastery school in the capital but is quickly secreted away once the authorities arrive, and eventually is smuggled across the Thai border. There he meets an important Burmese revolutionary and reveals that he has been carrying a small, mysterious notebook containing words he could not have written himself.

The book then jumps back several weeks and into Connelly’s fictional prison (modeled after the real-world Insein Prison, near Rangoon). A Dylan-esque songwriter and folksinger named Teza (“fire” in ancient Pali) has been condemned to twenty years of solitary confinement for performing protest songs against the military regime. Much of the rest of the novel takes place in the narrow confines of Teza’s cell—and the far roomier expanse of his mind—as he languishes for days on end with little to occupy him but the lizards and insects who share his cell. We come face-to-face with the brutality of prison life in Burma, particularly for “politicals” like Teza. Starvation is among his greatest concerns, staved off only by food parcels sent by his mother that are regularly looted by the prison guards. After the last package has been stripped of all but one dried fish, Teza’s hunger “has passed from aching into acute,” and “he can feel his body steadily devouring itself.”

Connelly manages to create surprising tension and suspense in Teza’s monotonous existence. The plot picks up considerably in the second half of the novel, after Teza is savagely beaten by a sadistic jailer, and Connelly broadens her canvas to encompass more of prison life. In particular, we are more formally introduced to Zaw Gyi, the young monk of the opening pages, now living a precarious scavenger’s existence within the prison compound.

Teza’s beating leaves him transformed, both physically and mentally. A broken jaw prevents him from eating or speaking for days. He begins keeping the Eight Precepts of monastic life and focusing his energy on the meditation practices his mother taught him as a boy:

He prostrates himself three times before an invisible altar and chants a low-voiced prayer. Then he sits cross-legged, hands upturned, right on top of left. Inhaling from his stomach, he follows the breath through his nose into his body. His mother used to tell him stories about the great meditators, the most learned and holy men, who can fly free through the air and walk through walls. With the inward breath, they levitate.With the outward breath, they move forward. They can ignite fires with their eyes and speak directly to animals and the spirits of the dead.

Alas, Teza can do none of these things. But he can sit and breathe, just as his mother taught him, a boy growing up “bathed and fed and watered with the teachings of Buddhism.” With the help of the one decent jailer, Chit Naing, Teza hatches a long and complex plan to help Zaw Gyi escape from the prison, and this story line, together with that of Teza’s ever deepening Buddhist practice, carries us through to the book’s somber but hopeful conclusion.

After The Lizard Cage was published in the United Kingdom in 2007, Connelly received the prestigious Orange Broadband Award for New Writers. Already an accomplished nonfiction writer and poet, she visited Burma several times in the mid-nineties, then spent nearly two years along the Thai-Burma border, thoroughly immersing herself in the Burmese cause. The novel takes place during that period, although little seems to have changed in Burma since.

The Burmese activist and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is a near-constant presence hovering over the story line in The Lizard Cage: guards and prisoners alike frequently discuss her actions, and a particularly nasty jailer entraps several politicals by enticing them to write letters to the dissident leader. A recurring question throughout the book is how the rich Buddhist traditions of Burma—which clearly inform Suu Kyi’s vision—can exist side by side with such astonishing cruelty. In explaining why he prefers working at an ordinary prison to the still greater depravity of military interrogation centers, the “good” jailer Chit Naing asks, “How can I, as a Buddhist, torture helpless men, terrorize young women?” And during the worst of his beating, Teza finds the strength to ask his tormenters, “What merit, what merit for your crimes?”

The Lizard Cage does not answer these questions, but perhaps it is enough to remind us to ask them. “Everyone can wake,” Teza insists—even his torturers, even the generals who destroy the country.

“I often wonder,” he continues, “what would happen if the generals went away for one month—just a single month—of meditation retreat. To simple monasteries, just to sit and meditate during the day, and to listen to a few lectures by good teachers. … I bet they would disband the dictatorship of their own free will.”

Teza is not entirely convincing in this prediction, but his faith is inspiring, and his reminder that “the Buddha taught us that things change all the time” is a reminder that we should not give up hope. The Lizard Cage is a captivating portrait of how far Burma has fallen—but also of the depth of spirit that may someday allow it to soar again.