Karen Connelly was an annoyance to fans watching this year’s webcast award ceremony. For instead of fulfilling her allocated role by silently accepting her statuette for the Orange Broadband for Debut Writers, smiling to the cameras and exiting stage left, she stood her ground and delivered a political acceptance speech of some three minutes – thus blowing webcast timings to the winds and ensuring that those watching did not get to hear who had won the main gong. I freely admit this was a turnoff despite the fact that minutes earlier Jackie Kay had described The Lizard Cage as “extraordinary, lyrical and compelling”. In the months since fellows bloggers have waxed passionate about this novel. That coupled with the fact that Connelly is Canadian (and Canadian Literature is an ongoing strand in my reading) finally persuaded me to start reading.
The lizard cage is a prison where Teza, a musician, is spending 20 years in solitary confinement for writing political protest songs. Prison conditions are barbaric; the guards are sadists. Connelly does not flinch from delivering graphic descriptions of starvation, torture, drownings, beatings, rape and the resulting physical consequences. Think Midnight Express – only this time the prisoner is innocent. The author’s outrage is evident yet she avoids polemic and didactism. Teza uses the opportunity afforded by his imprisonment to practice the 8 precepts of Buddhism, transcending the brutality of his environment and, ironically becoming a better Buddhist than he would have become had he remained a free man.
The novel can also be seen as the story of prison contraband, in this case paper and a cheap pen “made-in-Thailand … its plastic casing carefully marked, at the bottom and the top, little cuts with a razor blade. Identifiable” and the centre of a sting, conceived by the authorities to entrap political prisoners and ensure a lengthening of their prison terms by 5-10 years. Teza is a prime target and defenceless in his solitary cell. At this point the novel ignites. As Teza realises the danger, the pounding in his heart echoes the pounding of the guards’ boots as they march to his cell, echoing the pounding of my heart and the blood in my head as I become part of the scene ….. it’s too intense, I have to stop to reading.
That pen (symbol for words and the capacity for freedom of speech) provides narrative continuity. For wherever it lands, trouble and danger follows. Ownership passes from Teza to Nyi Lay to Chit Naing. Nyi Lay is a innocent 12-year old rat-catching orphan, scratching out a living within the prison complex; Chit Naing, a humane prison guard who befriends Teza. Yet innocence and humanity are as dangerous as possession of the pen, and both child and guard are inexorably drawn into sympathetic complicity (at least in the eyes of the authorities). Safety depends on disposal of the pen and fittingly, in view of its symbolic meaning, neither Nyi Lay nor Chit Naing, choose to dispose of it (despite this reader internally screaming at them to do so!).
Nothing has ever raised my blood pressure the way this novel did. Yet this is undoubtedly a literary offering. The colour palette is not as black and white as at first appears. The villains, while evil, are products of their time and place. In chapters written from their point-of-view, Connelly allows us, the readers, to inhabit their skins and confront the possibility that those choices, the choices of the masses after all, are ones we would make ourselves. Connelly is an award-winning poet and it shows. Yet she hasn’t delivered a poem in prose and, therefore, lost her novel and theme to the language. Her prose is controlled, by turns gritty and graphic, lyrical and rhythmic, as here:
“Teza closes his eyes again. Before he’s settled back into his mediation, he thinks how mysterious, how ordinary the breath is, this thin line of air cast between spirit and death, always here. Until it’s gone.
He shakes the thought away and breathes
A meditation to calm the most agitated of souls … and this, at times, hyperventilating reader.
p.s. Question: Why wasn’t this included on the Booker longlist? Answer: Because Harvill Secker didn’t submit it as one of their two choices. I find this absolutely shocking! Does anyone know which two novels they did submit?