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Papillon by Henri Charriere

By Henri de Charriere

The epic true story of a man who escaped from the penal colonies in South America a dozen times before getting free.

Book Review, “Papillon” by Henry Charriere

Review by Tom Thumb

In 1970 “Papillon” was published and set the world on fire. It is the slightly inventive autobiography of Henri Charriere, a man sentenced to life imprisonment in French Guiana, in the 1930’s, for a crime he did not commit. The graphic accounts of the misery and inhumanity of the French penal system were a sensation and the book sold millions, becoming one of the best sellers of all time.

Henry Charriere took to writing like anything else, without ever imagining that he could fail. He wrote around 5,000 words a day and if events from 30 years before ended up being a little fictionalised, he still managed to write Papillon as though he were telling the story over a pastis.

His story describes the nine escape attempts he made from jail, finally securing his freedom in Venezuela. The suffering and anguish that he endures during his 13 years in captivity leave the reader breathless and in awe of the courage this man possessed. You finish reading Papillon and you put the book down feeling that anything is possible.

‘Papillon’ is French for butterfly and was Charriere’s nickname during his ears among the Paris underworld – for though he was innocent of the killing that he was charged for, he was no innocent. In fact it was the resources and tough character that he acquired during these years that enabled him to survive and break free.

From the beginning of the book you’re left in no doubt as to how hard you needed to be to survive. On the boat heading for South America each prisoner carries his own ‘charger’, a slim metal cylinder for storing your cash – cash that would be sorely needed in order to make a break:

I kissed this three-and-a-half-inch , thumb-thick tube before shoving it in my anus. It went up high into my large intestine. It was part of me. This was life and freedom I was carrying inside me – the path to revenge. For the main thing that keeps Papillon going in these early stages is the exquisite torture he’ll put the lying prosecutor through for condemning him to a living hell.

The first break take place from the hospital where Papillon and two friends feign illness. Then younger of them entices the Arab guard inside with the offer of sex and they club him over the head. They escape to the jungle and head to a leper colony. These god-forsaken souls live apart on an island that no one dares approach. Although their days are numbered they’re moved to help Papillon and his friends restart theirs. They equip the with a boat and supplies and soon the three convicts are away on the high seas in a tiny vessel hardly equipped for the high seas.

They journey as far as Trinidad and Colombia in search of a country that will give them refuge but becalmed off the shores of the latter they’re arrested by the Colombian authorities. Flung in jail Papillon sees little hope and resolves to break again on his own. It comes off without a hitch and he escapes the police by striking out into the territory of the feared Indians of the Goajira.

Contrary to all he was told, the Goajira accept him as one of his own and within a year he has two wives, both of them soon pregnant. The idyllic life of fishing for pearls and making love under the stars detains him for a while but soon he longs to return to France – to reunite with his family and to settle scores with the prosecutor.

He’s soon caught again and though he tried no less than four times to escape again he’s returned to Guiana with his friends and they’re flung into the dungeons for two years.

Here he faces unimaginable torment. Kept in almost pitch blackness in solitary confinement, the prisoners must observe strict silence and survive on watery soup and stale bread foe the length of their confinement. Small wonder the punishment block was known as the ‘man-eater’. Papillon observes:

“The Chinese discovered the drop of water that falls on your head. The French discovered silence.”

His friends bribe the sweeper to sneak in a coconut a day to keep him strong and Papillon walks back and forth all day in his three by three metre cell. When he exhausts his body he’s free to lie down and replay episodes from the past in his mind. He becomes so adept that he can drift off with these dreams for hours at a time.

He survives two years of this and is sent to the islands where he wastes no time in preparing for a break. Here life is much more congenial and the prisoners spend their time gambling and gardening. Almost no one had ever escaped from the islands and no one can believe that Papillon is willing to risk the dungeons again by trying.

He finally succeed by throwing himself off a cliff attached to a bag of coconuts. Making use of a freak wave phenomenon at a particular point on the island he’s soon drifting towards the mainland. He’s accompanied by a friend who unfortunately forgets that the mainland shore is mostly swamp. Papillon ends up watching his friend sink beneath the mud, powerless to help him.

From there he makes contact with an escaped Chinese who’s hiding out on an island in the swamps of the forest. Again the swamps are deadly but the Chinese has a trick: he owns a pig that always finds a sure path across the shifting firm ground. This pig is the Chinese’s love and when they make their break on a new boat the pig comes with them.

Papillon eventually ends up in Venezuela where after some time in jail, he’s given an identity card and gains his freedom once and for all.

The book is full of 1000 anecdotes of prison life and the brutality of the system. The pages crawl with fascinating characters of the underworld, each with their own vivid story. Papillon records it all with the utmost humanity though there can be no doubt that he’s one hard man. When one of his breaks fails due to a convict informing upon him, the grass is dead within a week – courtesy of Papillon’s knife in his chest.