Review: Papillon (Henri Charrière)

Author: Henri Charrière

Published: 1969 (This edition: 1970)

Language: French (translated to English by Patrick O’Brian)

Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir, Adventure, Autobiography

Rating: 3/5

Note: No Spoilers! Read Away!

I wish I could have read this book in French, and maybe someday I will. Nonetheless, I expect it will be a completely different experience dans la langue française!

This edition is 48 years old, totally crumbly and smells like history. I read it with such care, without eating or drinking anything around it, lest I mar its charm. I knew nothing of the book when I first bought it; I had faintly remembered someone saying something about the book being famous, and I liked the blurb, so I picked it up.

I must say it wasn’t too easy to read; it wasn’t a breeze, but more of a walk through a swamp. The extent of detail in the book is tremendous and left me overwhelmed. I think my poor knowledge of geography didn’t help my case, though the map at the beginning of the book helped a lot!

My interest was piqued because of the nature and circumstance of the author, Henri Charrière, who was, simply put, a criminal-turned-writer. He was wrongly incarcerated in 1931 for the murder of a member of the French underworld, but he did admit to his other crimes.

Charrière wrote Papillon (pronounced papi-yon) in 1968, which was published a year later and went on to sell millions of copies worldwide. The title means ‘butterfly’ in French, of which Charrière had a tattoo on his chest and it then became his moniker in prison. He was charged with life imprisonment, but he served a total of 13 years in prison, the experience of which is the story of Papillon.

As usual, I won’t delve into the details of his experience, for that will defeat your will to read the book. I was most interested in and intrigued by his resilience and confidence when confronted with a life sentence in prison. He seemed to approach challenges the way you would a leaking tap – they could be overcome or solved. There aren’t signs of dejection throughout the book. Instead, you will find sparks of creativity and strokes of brilliance in the way Charrière planned his escapes.

Moreover, I came to see this autobiography as an example of mind over matter and of how much one could be trained to withstand the toughest and harshest of situations. The French penal prisons were meant for convicts that would never be released back into society and for whom a decision of disposal had been made by the courts. There was no going back once you were incarcerated in one those prisons, yet this man attempted to escape multiple times. Read the book to find out what drove him to do so!

Papillon faced a lot of criticism in terms of its authenticity on the part of Henri Charrière. It has been contested by  journalists and authors, but that doesn’t change the narrative for me. The author claimed that it was true, except for a few possible lapses in memory and for the most part, I like to read books without frameworks attached to them, at least for the first time that I read them. The more research you do as a reader, the more it adds to the book and the experience of it, or it may even go south before you know it. So, I shall leave that discretion to you, fellow Dreamers.

For me, this book will always be about the ability of a human mind and body to adapt to any situation that presents itself, given that we have our wits about us and we never give a thought to losing hope or giving up. It is a show of moving forward and learning from your mistakes, something that I abide by in any role that I play.

Further Reading:


A Year of Non-Fiction (2016-17) Book Reviews

DreamingAtMyDesk View All →

Reader. Learner. Dreamer.
I am all about the little things in life!

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