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Cannonball Read III: Papillon by Henri Charriere

By SaBrina | Books | May 20, 2011 |

By SaBrina | Books | May 20, 2011 |

I’m gonna tell you something: Henri Charriere has got some balls (or ovaries for the feminists). It’s likely that you’ve already heard of Papillon, a Frenchman who was falsely convicted of murder at 25 and sentenced to hard labor for life in the Iles de Salut, a trio of islands located off the coast of French Guiana. He famously escaped the brutal treatment that prisoners received in the bagnes, and oh boy did he escape them. He more or less successfully escaped twice, and many more times, his carefully thought-out preparations were foiled at the last minute.

We meet Papi at his 1931 trial, being menaced by the prosecutor, Pradel, ineffectually comforted by his lawyer, Hubert, and ultimately judged and sentenced to life by 12 “cheeseheads.” (Hands up, who else would see a movie called 12 Angry Cheeseheads?) He is sent to a temporary prison to await his trip to the islands, where he meets up with Dega, a Marseilles man who gives him the invaluable advice to get a plan. A plan is a small metal tube that you keep far up your anus in order to safeguard your money. I quickly accepted this as standard and not at all gross compared to all the other horrors that the bagnards have to suffer through. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but copious amounts of pus and hair shirts are involved.

From the instant he’s locked up, Papillon is looking for a way out. For years, Henri’s motivation for escaping, besides simply being free, is to return to France and get revenge on the people involved in his wrongful conviction. On his first successful-ish cavale, he and two fellow bagnards, Clousiot and Maturette, make it all the way to Rio Hacho, in Colombia, before they are recaptured and locked up in a local jail to await their return to the bagne. Papillon escapes from there, too, and actually creates a life for himself with the Guajira indians, but he refuses to stay there forever because he still wants to kill some prosecutors/policemen. This ends up being a less than ideal idea because he is eventually turned in by a nun.

Years later, after two sentences in Reclusion (bagne solitary), after a friend is murdered, after a failed prisoner revolt, after gaining the trust of wardens, doctors, and their wives, after a stint in the insane asylum, and after many re-inserting of plans, Papillon is able to get himself transferred to Devil’s Island. You know, the island from which nobody had ever successfully escaped. This is where he plans and begins his final, successful cavale, which takes him to Venezuela. He becomes so enamored of the caring way that the Irapa villagers they first meet take care of him and his fellow escaped/liberated cons, that he makes Venezuela his home country.

What most struck me about Papillon’s quest is the staggering number of people who want to help him. There are the other bagnards, yes, which in itself is an achievement, because any escape tightens the screws on everyone left behind. There are also people in other countries who know he is an escaped convict and house him, feed him, give him advice on the best routes to take. There are British naval officers who encounter him on the seas and throw him cigarettes, food, even a person to help guide his ship. There are wardens who give him his pick of jobs on the islands, only asking him to escape after they are no longer warden. And none of this has anything to do with believing he is innocent. People help him thinking that he committed the murder for which he was incarcerated.

Can you imagine if a man escaped from French prison today, APB’s put out on him, his picture splashed all over the news, and he washed up on the shore of some unknown country? I can’t think he would be accepted unquestionably, hidden from the cops, anything like that. I know I sure as hell would turn him in, I don’t care how loudly he proclaimed his innocence.

Papillon is a great story about overcoming an unjust system, and is a thrilling escape story. Many thrilling escape stories, in fact. I even started tearing up at the end, I was so happy for Papillon. I can’t speak to the movie version, but I highly recommend the book. As long as you’re not squeamish.

Below is a highly unhelpful picture of a map that was quite helpful to me in terms of seeing where Papillon’s escapes took him.

papillon map.png

For more of SaBrina’s reviews, check out her blog, Beauty School Dropout.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.

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