'There is nothing to be done with the memory of violence, as there was nothing to be done with the violence itself, except to endure it without becoming it, which is his most important work in the cage; his way in, his way out. It is strange that sometimes, when the beating is very bad, his anger is not so intense... He feels tenderness towards his own vulnerable, hungry body... He would not do to Handsome what Handsome has done to him. He knows this. And that knowledge is also a kind of tenderness.'
On the 1st June, 6 days before the Orange Prize, I sat down with Karen Connelly's debut novel (which went on to win the New Writer's Award) and was thoroughly blown away. Because The Lizard Cage is extroadinary - a properly sonorous book, so textured and fluently written; so moving and humane; so beautiful and haunting. It is a book to feel strongly about - politically, emotionally, intellectually - and there is no doubt, no doubt at all in my mind that it is one of the novels to beat in 2007. I can't imagine reading anything of a higher calibre in the next six months.
It begins mundanely enough, with a twelve-year old orphan in a Burmese monastry school, learning to read and write with a fierce will. The boy is strangely self-sufficient and defensive of his scanty possessions, a little afraid of the other children perhaps, but still discretely happy. He exudes a quiet determination - to grow up, to write his own name. That is until, one day, uniformed men, the representatives of Burma's repressive miltary dictatorship, come looking for him and he is forced to flee, with the help of the monks, to Thailand. With him goes the contraband the authorities are so desperate to reclaim - it is a notebook, inscribed with the final words of a dying man.
At which point the narrative stops and hop-skips backward. We leave the boy to his escape on the Thai border and begin again in a very different setting. It is 1995 and Ko Teza, a songwriter and political activist, has been in prison for seven years with (at least) thirteen more to serve. He has spent all of that time - 364 weeks, 2556 days - in solitary confinement in the 'teak coffin', visited only by his jailers and another prisoner who brings his food (such as it is) and empties his slop pail. No books, no newspapers, no writing materials, no music - nothing at all to relieve the tedium. He receives occasional parcels of food from his mother - filched of most of their contents - but he hasn't seen or spoken to her since the day he was arrested; in order that he might keep up his physical strength he kills and eats raw lizards. He endures frequent and arbitrary violence from Junior Jailor 'Handsome', a SLORC brute, but much worse is the cultural and sensual wasteland of his bare cell. His crime? He once wrote a series of extremely popular songs critical of the ruling 'party', the Generals of the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Committee):
'Teza's songs became a manifestation of the country transforming around them, in Rangoon and its townships and dozens of cities and villages all over Burma, in the singer too, a new country was being born... [It was] our business, our case. It was the old dream, the oldest music, written again in human blood, soiled by human excrement, with shoes bereft of feet scattered all around. The chorus was a single word: freedom.'
In prison he is known simply as The Songbird.
However, despite the degradation and the inevitable mental deterioration of his imprisonment Teza maintains a precious equilibrium, balanced somewhere between calm despair and desperate optimism. He does this, firstly, through hours of meditation - he jokes that prison has made him a far better Buddhist than he could ever have hoped to be on the outside - and, secondly, by undertaking a series of minute personal rituals. The most important amongst these is the 'cheroot ceremony' whereby he diligently unrolls the filters from the cheap cigarettes the guards give him and reads them. They're made from little scraps of newspaper, rolled by peasant women, and represent both the holiness of the printed word and his only contact with the outside world. He, of all people, is in a position to understand the esoteric power, and the attendant danger, of words. The torn scraps of paper rarely make 'sense' - the original stories are impossible to fathom from them - but they act as totemic charms. Teza imagines them as messages sent for him:
'After the story he searches for the secret, the message encoded in every bit of paper. The torn edged missives seem anonymous, but Teza knows the world has sent them. The scraps emerge from the vastness of his country, across the rivers and fields, given by the hands of strangers. They pass through walls, gates, bars, enormous doors. They move across cells in the halls Teza has never seen, down corridors filled with the very particular smell of imprisoned men... He knows the ceremony of words and their secret messages bring illumination.'
Like the nameless boy of the Prologue, he is mesmerised by the possibility of the alphabet: of the magic of marking out your thoughts and feelings, brazenly and permanently, on paper.
He is attracted too by the spoken word and speaks as often as he can, to himself, to his attendant and to the jailers who keep him under lock and key. One of these men, Senior Jailer Chit Naing, a rebel-sympathiser, has become to closest thing Teza has to a friend, smuggling in news from the outside and offering an approximation of intimacy. Still, the written word - and communication with those distant from him - is the Holy Grail of Teza's imprisonment. When his slop attendant, a drug-runner called Sein Yun, brings him paper and pen and urges him to write a letter to the outside world, he is sorely tempted. Afraid, but extroadinarily tempted.
Indeed, he does write a letter, a passionate and painful cry for help but, sensing trouble at the last minute, disposes of the evidence just as Handsome arrives to search his cell. He eats the paper, one moistened strip at a time, and tosses the pen up and through the grate high in his cell wall. Tosses it right out under the nose of a young boy, about twelve years old, who kills and sells rats for his upkeep in the prison and who is always on the look out for unusual 'treasure'. The pen duly disappears and, eventually, brings the young rat-killer to Teza's cell and into his narrow life.
Connelly tells her story by turns, using first Teza, then the rat-killer, Sein Yun, Chit Naing and Handsome for point-of-view, turning each on a precise lathe. They are, all of them, acutely drawn: Teza's dreadful lonely yearning is The Lizard Cage's keynote but Connelly has the generosity and wit to round out all her key players. Her exploration of the motives of Teza's captors and torturers is particularly incisive. Junior Jailer Handsome, for example, is a real piece of work: raging in his powerlessness, his thwarted ambitions and wounded pride are readily turned into violence. Similarly, Sein Yun, a despicable coward who willingly sells his services for personal gain to the highest bitter but who is also pathetic and, even sympathetic. Connelly recognises that neither these individuals, or any of the other sadists and tyrants that impinge on Teza's life, are to blame for the evils done to him. They're all cogs in the machine of Burma's long, sad story.
It is the real sadness of this story, and the ubiquity of it, that drives Connelly's prose, which is both elegiac and epic in cadence. Sinuous and lithe, The Lizard Cage seems to own more to the metre and rhythm of poetry and song then to traditional descriptive prose. In parts it is incredibly moving. One scene in particular, in which Teza masturbates alone in his cell while thinking of his lost girlfriend, has particularly stayed with me. I feel I must quote at length (I hope you won't mind):
'He takes his hands from his eyes and lays them on his chest. He loved her.
His hands slide down over his ribs. The blades rise out of him, xylophone keys placed side by side... The jutting leap from his ribs to his lower belly would sicken her. He is glad she cannot see him now, with hipbones protruding like hooks.
His hands slip under the unknotted longyi. He scratches. He picks one, two, three bedbugs from his pubic hair. This act brings enough pleasure to release a flood of lust and the memory of lush. His yearning will be satisfied in seconds.
Certain moments rest in his body from the time before. The places she marked him are far below the skin...
His desire sings to hers, coaxing it forward, and her desire comes towards him. He unbuttons her blouse, pulls away the soft material of her bra; her nipples harden. Shy, she covers her breasts with her hair... He floats above her, afraid to rest his weight on her, knowing he will have to use his weight, he will have to push. The nexus of tenderness and force confuses him. He did not expect to be so afraid of hurting her. Echoing his own thoughts, she whispers: ' I'm afraid. You'll hurt me.'
Despite their fear, these are words of love.
The spasm charging through his body makes no sound.
Wasted pearl fills his hand, spills down his wrist.
He rolls over on his side, jawbone chafing straw mat.
The ants between the brings have gone still, as though the wall itself has clenched tight and crushed them all.'
Perhaps there is an element of manipulation and polemic to all this. Afterall, Connelly is writing about a predicament and a dicatatorship with which she is painfully familiar; The Lizard Cage is dedicated to several Burmese political prisoners of her acquaintaince and she has lived in close proximity to the rebels on the Thai-Burmese border. Her next book will be an exploration of her encounters in the refugee camps on that same border. Undoubtedly, she has a message and an agenda. As she made clear at the Orange Prize, human rights, political freedom and the power of the written word are causes close to her heart - she is determined to give a forgotten people an international voice and she is in a good position to do so. I accept this unreservedly, and admit, freely, that I share Connelly's attendant principles and aspirations.
Nevertheless, I consider that The Lizard Cage ultimately transcends propaganda and avoids didactism. It is never a single-issue, thinly-veiled morality tale. Rather it is a full-bodied, unrestricted meditation on freedom of speech, tyranny and humanity, grounded in the principles of fiction - plot, character and place. There is something powerfully fulfilling about it - calming even, certainly hopeful - that is sufficient unto itself. It could not do what it does much better. It is in my power to be simply pleased by what it is - a testimony to the esoteric power of words - and I am.