Review: Papillon

Papillon (1969) Book Review

When I first began reading Papillon, I found the memoirs of French Prisoner Henri Charrière too fantastical to be believed. How could a mere man have possibly endured the living hell detailed within the pages of this novel, and still maintained a tremendous show of determination and courage? I decided that separating fact from fiction can often-times be an arduous and time consuming process, and in some way this process can be a huge detraction from the enjoyability of the book.

The autobiography begins with Henri convicted of manslaughter in Paris October 26th 1931, a crime of which he passionately refutes his guilt. Unfortunately thanks to a pervasive argument from the prosecutor, our protagonist is sentenced to life imprisonment and ten years of hard labour in the penal settlement of the French Guiana. During his journey and hardship, Henri meets a plenitude of outwardly dangerous characters, who ironically treat him better than those meant to be of a civilised nature. In fact the savagery administered to his person, which is in part due to his repeated attempts to escape his captivity, often earn him a begrudging respect from his peers and prison staff alike.

These barbaric punishments he underwent are also not to be snuffed at. In one instance Charrière meticulously describes his experience during his two year tenure in Solitary Confinement, at the now abandoned Île Saint-Joseph. This portion of the book is paced at such a slow crawl, with each individual moment of madness accentuated, that whilst reading it I began to feel acutely claustrophobic myself. I could not even begin to comprehend the mental vitality one would need being in total isolation for such an incredibly long length of time, his struggle and eventual victory is made even more spectacular by this.

Of course, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Charrière emphasises that his will to survive and make a new life for himself was the sole purpose he needed to carry on. During his first escape from the penal settlement, he comes across a Native American tribe on the Guajira Peninsula, Columbia. Initially he is treated as an outsider by the tribe, but over time he earns their trust and is able to connect and even bond with them. He spends only a brief time of six months there, but he later reflects that this simple way of life he participated in was one he would regret leaving for the rest of his life. This theme of civilisation vs. ‘savagery’ is constantly subverted, and at a time where capital punishment was still exercised without mercy, it makes sense that Charrière and others like him found solace in the simpler things.

This tale of one man and his struggle to escape a society that had rejected him is one of toil, and not for the faint hearted. However, it is also an uplifting story that shows the true power of the human spirit, and one that cannot be truly encapsulated in the written word.

Review by Elis Doyle