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Today's quote:

Thursday, April 8, 2021

The Lizard Cage

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I don't read to pass the time - I can do that much better with a glass of chardonnay in my hand. Books are not about passing the time. They're about other lives and other worlds. Far from wanting time to pass, one wishes one had more of it to read more.

I've just read Karen Connelly's "The Lizard Cage" which is about a little boy, an orphan, and the story of his interaction with a politial prisoner, a songwriter named Teza. The novel has harrowing scenes in prison. Teza, a Buddhist, must capture and eat raw lizards, breaking his faith by killing and consuming something that lived in order to survive himself.

Early on you come to a pasage where the little boy talks about his friends in the prison. He names them and then says, "And books ... My friends were books." Even though he couldn't read them, because he didn't yet know how, their very existence gave him comfort.

Soon you learn that Teza is hoarding cigarettes because they are wrapped in newspaper and thus have scraps of words, odd little accidental modernist poems that are a lifeline to civilisation. Soon, too, a single pen enters Teza's life and then seemingly disappears. The search for this pen drives the plot, bringing both disaster and salvation of sorts - for Teza, the orphan, and a prison guard who befriends them. As for life outside the prison, where all dissent is forbidden, the author writes, "As long as there is paper, people will write, secretly, in small rooms, in the hidden chambers of their minds, just as people whisper the words they're forbidden to speak aloud."

In an era of computers, there's something deeply poignant about a political prisoner with his scraps of paper, about a prison convulsed in the hunt for a pen, and about the author's recognition of the importance of the written and printed word. It's easy to forget in our wired world that there are not just places like prisons where electronic text is forbidden, but whole countries, like Burma, where an unregistered modem will land you in jail or worse. Freedom can still depend on ink, just as it always has.

I spent an unforgettable twelve months in Burma during the time of U Ne Win's dictatorship, and fell deeply in love with the country and its people - and one person in particular. The country was then closed off from the rest of the world behind its "Teak Curtain", with no Western goods and no Western newspapers, and under a constant curfew and surveillance. Some appearances may have changed but nothing else really, because the country is (again) under a military dictatorship and its wonderful people are still suffering. And the world does not care - just as it didn't care forty-five years ago when I lived and worked there!

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