BOOK REVIEW - HENRI CHARRIERE – PAPILLON – 1971 – Harper Collins.
If his story is to be believed, Henri Charriere (known as Papillion for the butterfly tattoo he sported on his chest) was arrested for a murder he never committed and got sent to the infamous French penal colony called Devil’s Island. Conditions were dreadful, and the Island was regarded as impossible to escape from. Papillion found himself faced with dreadful duties like helping to bury the dead at sea. As one corpse was lowered into the water in its winding sheet, a shark lifted it up and dragged it to bits on the surface. Such sights were intended to deter prisoners from trying to escape by sea. Shocked by the conditions, Papillion escaped, not once, but several times. His first escape, during which he posed as a leper and even briefly joined a leper colony (supposedly drinking soup in which one man’s finger had fallen into) and his escape from the colony eventually led him to a long affair with a beautiful native girl, which lasted for some months. Captured, he was cast into solitary confinement for a long period of time. Charriere made several more escape attempts, and faced one of the longest periods of solitary confinement in a darkened cell ever endured.
The book is generally taken to be a collection of anecdotal tales about other prisoners, which Charriere made into his own adventure. Many readers are sceptical that one man alone could have endured anything like as much deprivation and cruelty as Papillion does. The book is nevertheless powerful and often grim reading. There are touching moments, such as his meting with Dreyfuss, the French anarchist who would eventually be defended by Emile Zola in I Accuse. Papillion eventually escaped on a raft, with another prisoner, at which point Papillion ends.
A sequel, Banco takes up the story from the disastrous landing. Papillion’s fellow escapee drowns in quicksand. Papillion ends up mixed up with bandits and pirates awaiting an official pardon, which he receives as, the book finishes. A film version, severely shortening the story, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman was released in the 1960’s.
© Copyright. Arthur Chappell
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