First edition (French)
|Publisher||Robert Laffont (French)
Hart-Davis, MacGibbon (English)
Published in English
Papillon [papijɔ̃] is a memoir by convicted felon and fugitive Henri Charrière, first published in France in 1969, describing his escape from a penal colony in French Guiana. It became an instant bestseller. It was translated into English from the original French by June P. Wilson and Walter B. Michaels for a 1970 edition, and by author Patrick O'Brian. Soon afterward the book was adapted for a Hollywood film of the same name.
Charrière stated that all events in the book are truthful and accurate, allowing for minor lapses in memory. Since its publication there has been controversy over its accuracy. Not all the events and jails which he describes correspond to the time frame of the events in the book. It is best regarded as a narrative novel, depicting the adventures of several of Charrière's fellow inmates, among them Charles Brunier.
Charrière supposedly had a reputation as a great fantasizer and storyteller. Thus, Papillon can be said to be more about a fictional character than the author himself. Charrière himself always maintained that his account was accurate and true, and that the story was dictated by him to a professional writer who put it in writing. However, in an interview before he died, the publisher, Robert Laffont, admitted that the book was originally submitted to him as a novel. Laffont specialised in real-life adventures, and persuaded Charrière to release it as if it were an autobiography. The book's title was based on Charrière's nickname, derived from a butterfly tattoo on his chest, papillon being the French word for 'butterfly'.
Charrière followed the book with a sequel (Banco) in 1973.
The book is an account of a 14-year period in Papillon's life (October 26, 1931 to October 18, 1945) starting from when he was wrongly convicted of murder in France and sentenced to a life of hard labor at the Devil's Island penal colony. He escaped from Devil's Island, to ultimately settle in Venezuela, where he lived and prospered, free from French justice.
Papillon endured a brief stay at a prison in Caen. As soon as he boarded a vessel bound for South America, he learned about the brutal life that prisoners had to endure at the prison colony. Murders were not uncommon among convicts, and men were cut with makeshift knives for their charger (a hollow metal cylinder containing money, lodged in the rectum; it has also been called a plan). Papillon befriended a former banker convicted of counterfeiting named Louis Dega. He agreed to protect Dega from those seeking to murder him for his charger.
Upon arriving at the penal colony, Papillon claimed to be ill and was sent to the infirmary. There he collaborated with two men named Clousiot and André Maturette to escape from the prison using a sailboat which they acquired with the assistance of the penal settlement's leper colony at Pigeon Island. They let the current of the Maroni River take them to the Atlantic Ocean, where they began to sail to the northwest.
In Trinidad the trio were joined by three other escapees and were helped on their journey by a British family, the Dutch bishop of Curaçao and several others. Nearing the Colombian coastline, the escapees were sighted; they were unable to escape for lack of wind and were captured and imprisoned.
In Colombian prison, Papillon joined with another prisoner to escape. Some distance from the prison, the two went their separate ways. Papillon entered the Guajira peninsula, a region dominated by Native Americans. He was assimilated into a coastal village whose specialty was pearl diving, married two teenage sisters and made them pregnant. After spending several months in relative paradise, Papillon became motivated to seek vengeance against those who had wronged him.
Soon after leaving the village, Papillon was imprisoned at Santa Marta, then transferred to Barranquilla. There, he was reunited with Clousiot and Maturette. Papillon made numerous escape attempts from this prison, all of which failed. He was eventually extradited back to French Guiana.
As punishment, Papillon was sentenced to two years of solitary confinement on Île Saint-Joseph (an island in the Îles du Salut group, 11 kilometers from the French Guiana coast). Clousiot and Maturette were given the same sentence. Upon his release, Papillon was transferred to Royal Island (also an island in the Îles du Salut group). An escape attempt there was foiled by an informant (whom Papillon stabbed to death) and Papillon was again sent to solitary confinement, this time for nineteen months. The original sentence of eight years was reduced after Papillon risked his life to save the life of a girl caught in shark-infested waters.
After French Guiana officials decided to support the pro-Nazi Vichy Regime, the penalty for any escape attempt became capital punishment. Realizing this, Papillon decided to feign insanity and be sent to the insane asylum on Royal Island. His reasoning was that insane prisoners could not be sentenced to death for any reason and the asylum was not as heavily guarded. He collaborated with another prisoner on an escape attempt but this attempt failed: while they were attempting to sail away, their boat was bashed against the rocks and destroyed, the other prisoner drowning and Papillon himself nearly bashed against the rocks.
Papillon returned to the regular prisoner population on Royal Island after being "cured" of his mental illness. He requested that he be transferred to Devil's Island, the smallest and most "inescapable" island in the Îles de Salut group. Studying the waters around the island, Papillon discovered a rocky inlet surrounded by a high cliff. He noticed that every seventh wave was large enough to carry a floating object far enough out into the sea that it would drift towards the mainland. He experimented by throwing sacks of coconuts into the inlet.
He found another prisoner to accompany him on this escape attempt, a pirate named Sylvain who had previously sailed along southeast Asia, and who was infamous for raiding ships in the Far East, killing everyone aboard. They threw themselves into the inlet using sacks of coconuts for flotation. The seventh wave duly carried them out into the ocean. After days of drifting under the relentless sun, surviving only on coconut pulp, they made landfall at the mainland, but Sylvain abandoned his coconut sack prematurely and was devoured by quicksand.
Papillon navigated the mainland to find a Chinese man named Cuic Cuic, the brother of Chang. Cuic Cuic protected himself by making a hut on an "island" of solid ground surrounded by quicksand, using a pig that was adept at finding a navigable route over the quicksand. The men and the pig made their way to Georgetown, British Guiana, by boat. Though he could have lived there as a free man, Papillon decided to continue to the northwest in the company of five other escapees. Reaching Venezuela, the men were captured and imprisoned at mobile detention camps in the vicinity of El Dorado, a small mining town near the Gran Sabana region. Surviving horrible conditions there, and even finding diamonds, Papillon was eventually released, obtaining Venezuelan citizenship and celebrity status a few years later.
A film based on the book was made in 1973, starring Steve McQueen as Henri Charrière and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega. The section of the movie set in the mainland penal colony has no basis in the book, as the pair escaped from a prison hospital immediately after arrival so they never got to see it, but the movie has still received largely positive reviews.
- ISBN 0-06-093479-4 (560 pages; English; paperback; published by Harper Perennial; July 1, 2001)
- ISBN 0-246-63987-3 (566 pages; English; hardcover; published by Hart-Davis Macgibbon Ltd; January, 1970)
- ISBN 0-85456-549-3 (250 pages; English; large-print hardcover; published by Ulverscroft Large Print; October, 1976)
- ISBN 0-613-49453-9 (English; school and library binding; published by Rebound by Sagebrush; August, 2001)
- ISBN 0-7366-0108-2 (English; audio cassette; published by Books on Tape, Inc.; March 1, 1978)
- "Among the ghosts", by former inmate Erwin James, The Guardian, 4 December 2006
- "The Fabulous Escapes of Papillon". Life, Nov. 13, 1970, pp. 45 – 52.
- "Devil's Island", Life, July 12, 1939, pp. 65 – 71. A contemporary look at the then functioning "Devil's Island" during Henri's time there.
- Article which refutes some claims made by Charrière in the book
- (Portuguese)   , Articles published by the site of the Brazilian newspaper O Rebate which deny Charrière's account
- Rene Belbenoit's "Dry Guillotine, Fifteen Years Among The Living Dead" (1938) at archive.org