Oct 2016 - The Lizard Cage

The Lizard Cage opens in Burma/Myanmar in 1995 in a prison on the outskirts of Rangoon/Yangoon. The central character is a prisoner, Teza, a former university student who was arrested during street protests against the oppressive military regime in 1988. So when we meet Teza he is in the seventh year of his 20-year sentence in what the inmates refer to as the Lizard Cage. Lizards also form part of his protein-deficient diet when he can catch them and help distract him from his grim existence as he awaits their arrival and charts their movements. As a former popular singer he was nicknamed Songbird and his memories of his former life help sustain him, along with memories of his mother and his girlfriend, his Buddhist teachings and news about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose picture is forbidden inside the cage. Chit Naing, a sympathetic senior warder and Sein Yun, a disturbed vengeful, junior jailer, two minor characters create a constant ebb and flow of good and bad in his life. Ironically a simple white ballpoint pin becomes the focus of unspeakable treatment meted out against Teza and is ultimately Chit Naing’s undoing. A young, 12 year old boy appears, Teza’s server and eventually his saviour.  The arrival of the boy, Free El Salvador (the words emblazoned on his t-shirt) seems to be a turning point in Teza’s life, leading him to make a fateful choice.


Of course, man’s inhumanity to man features highly in the novel, but man’s ability to rise above injustices is sustaining. Teza tells us that Buddha taught that life is suffering, the First Noble Truth, but his focus on the Fourth Devine Abiding; upekkha – equanimity in the face of those things that should be let be – seems to give him strength as he repeats it like a mantra.

Our group found this a harrowing book because of the graphic descriptions of torture experienced in the Cage and not everyone finished the reading. Although Connelly has been criticized for her use of Burmese language in the dialogue, we felt that it lent an air of authenticity.  We were impressed by the research that went into recreating the grim prison scenes and the portrayal of the amazing number of characters who inhabit the Lizard Cage with such convincing details. Those who finished are glad they did and found it a strong, compelling read. 


Leslie Muri

Book Group 1. Oct. 26, 2016