Papillon by Henrie Charriere: A Book Review

A beautiful tattoo of a butterfly engraved on the chest of Henri Charriere, the author and the protagonist, gave him the name Papillon. The books takes us through the daring adventures  of Papillon (the author himself) as he makes nine death-defying escapes from the penal settlements of French Guiana in eleven years. The story that was penned down by Charriere in colloquial French after his final escape, acquired widespread fame and critical acclaim after being reprinted in an English translation in 1969.  The English rendition (by Patrick O’ Brian) avoids becoming a sketch through the translator’s eyes. The emotions of the protagonist are explicit, the thrill of the story is resolute and the lessons from his life are succinct. This is not the book to be read with slumbering, tired eyes on a cushy couch. It engrosses, awakens and excites!

The penal settlements of French Guiana had been dreaded from the days of Napoleon who used its harsh and near inhospitable conditions to punish renegades and political prisoners. Papillon was wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment to these settlements (infamously named as the Devil’s islands).  Begrudged and beguiled, Papillon vowed to break free and avenge the injustice meted out to him by what he believed was the collusion of French jury, prosecutor and even the unjust French people.  He made his first break from the prison of Saint Laurent within the first forty-two days of his term navigating shark infested waters of the Caribbean Sea. Showing exemplary courage he reached as far as Colombia using a rickety and crumbling wooden boat only to be captured and returned back to the French. Angered and embarrassed French officials shipped him to the devil’s islands without delay. The failure only made him more resilient; he refused to accept his fate as a prisoner and defied all natural odds to make more impossible escapes, only to be recaptured!

The book (with the author’s own emphasis) also explores the humane relations Papillon shared with his cell mates. He was heavy handed with sods but befriended his prison mates easily. He learned to live with the rogues, the dreaded convicts who hacked at moment’s provocation but he never abandoned the meek and the suffering. Papillon made good friends with staff of the prisons where he was grounded (the warders and the gendarmes). They were never repulsed by his obstinacy to break, believed in his innocence and respected his dream to live as a free man. It was this trust that enlivened his spirits and increased his strength to keep his sanity in the lowest ebbs of confinement.

Papillon for me has outlived its reputation. The book makes an appeal to a whole range of men. It cannot be merely looked as the story of the struggle of a convict for freedom. Papillion’s struggle reveals much more than this character; it uncovers a whole process of catharsis. The book has become an obvious and useful addition to the library of many prisons since its printing. It implores people at large to never lose hope while facing an adversity; win or lose, the way of the warrior is the only way to survive.

Shailendra Singh

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