About two-thirds of the way through this page-turning memoir, the author reveals that he 'worked' as a safecracker and was familiar with the prominent criminals in the larger cities of France in the late 1920s - so 'Papillon' wasn't as innocent as he claims. This memoir is a gripping tale of endurance, creativity, and interpersonal relationships. The use of solitary confinement and its adverse effects on the prisoners echoes the contemporary debate over the use of "administrative segregation". Is this story entirely true, did 'Papillon' exaggerate, or simply forget details after 30 years?
Knowing nothing about this book or Charrière, only knowing the word papillon and it's English translation through the fact that there's a dog breed that's called papillon because the dog's fluffy ears (vaguely) resemble a butterfly's wings, I picked this up off the 'new and recently returned' shelf because the blurb on the back described it as "A classic memoir of prison breaks and adventure". And 'adventure' sounded like the right genre for me at that moment in time.
I'm a bit disappointed with Charrière's description of his encounter with the lepers. He talks about a man who hands him a cup of coffee and then exclaims "Oh, where's my finger gone?". Henri finds it stuck to the outside of his cup and hands it back to him. According to Wikipedia this sequence is impossible, leprosy, despite all the old wives' tales, does not lead to body parts falling off here, there and everywhere. This next passage is taken straight from Wikipedia's page on leprosy
"Initially, infections are without symptoms and typically remain this way for 5 to as long as 20 years. Symptoms that develop include granulomas (loosely described as 'a small nodule') of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes. This may result in a lack of ability to feel pain and thus loss of parts of extremities due to repeated injuries.
So, therefore that part of the scene must be a figment of Charrière's imagination as that man's finger cannot have just come off without some kind of trauma happening to it first.
The blurb on the back of my copy reads as follows:
"Condemned for a murder he did not commit, Henri Charrière, known as Papillon, was sent to the penal colony of French Guiana. Forty-two days after his arrival he made his first break, travelling a thousand gruelling miles in an open boat. Recaptured, his spirit remained untamed - in thirteen years he made nine amazingly daring escapes, including one from the notorious Devil's Island.
An immediate sensation upon its 1969 publication, Papillon is one of the greatest adventure stories ever told, a true tale of courage, resilience and an unbreakable will."
"...Nine amazingly daring escapes..." That is a very misleading statement. From what the blurb says I was expecting Papillon to escape (by which I mean, and thought everyone else meant, leave his jail/cage/penal colony for at least 24 hours before being recaptured) on nine different occasions. What the blurb really means is that he attempts to escape nine times, he only succeeds twice, the first attempt when he managed to stay out for 11 months and the final, which I'm currently in the middle of.
Finally finished it! *relieved sigh* I've currently got this shelved as an autobiography/biography, but I hesitate to leave it there. Modern researchers don't believe Charrière's continual claims of complete honesty regarding his book. They now say that it's very likely the book is a combination of other inmate's adventures and Charrière's imagination. According to all available records Charrière never spent any time on Devil's Island, and like with the leprosy situation I described above he got a number of pertinent details regarding the geography of Devil's Island wrong. A French journalist maintains that only "10% of Papillon represents the truth".
Learning that a book like this is pretty much just a well-imagined adventure story in the vein of Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island takes a bit of the shine off story. It's no longer as fantastically amazing because it's not real. I went into the reading of this book believing that it was a true story and I am certainly disappointed to come to the conclusion that there's very little truth to be found anywhere in the book.
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