‘Papillon’ by Henri Charriere… an Experience of the 19th Century French Penal System.

In 1969, Henri Charriere published his memoir, Papillon, which follows his life’s adventure once he is wrongly committed to life imprisonment for manslaughter and thrown into France’s harsh and uncivilised penal system in the middle of the 20th century.

But Papillon, as was his nickname due to a large butterfly tattoo on his chest, was not to take this injustice and severe punishment lying down. The way in which this French penal system worked meant that these prisoners were put to menial labour within the penal colony of Cayenne, French Guiana, South America. The collection of prisons on the mainland and on the three isolated islands of Iles du Salut (Salvation Islands) were active from 1852. Consistent with each was the ill treatment of the prisoners, violence between the prisoners, and the inhumane and disease-ridden conditions. Most notably, the island prison, Ile Saint-Joseph, was designed specifically for the solitary confinement of prisoners who had attempted escape or had committed a crime whilst incarcerated. This island was the toughest on its prisoners who were kept in silence, darkness and had very little food for years. It was a living grave and its prisoners had to fight off madness and starvation. Many did not survive it.

Henri Charriere’s experience of the French penal system at this time is an incredibly insightful and fascinating one. Charriere, or rather, Papillon, is always thinking about a break from prison and avenging those who had committed him. Later, however, he sees that life as a free man who is accepted by society is more important.

Though delivered a life sentence plus ten years of hard labour, Papillon experiences only thirteen years of imprisonment within which he attempts several breaks. After an initial break from French Guiana with two friends, the group are then shipwrecked and imprisoned in Columbia. Papillon breaks again and ends up spending months with Indians, who he finds are a welcoming and wonderfully free people. Even though he fathers two children by two of the young, beautiful girls there, he leaves for a more civilised life, a decision which he comes to regret. He is captured and imprisoned again and eventually returned to the prison islands to carry out a two year, solitary confinement sentence on Ils Saint-Joseph. Fighting off madness with a strict exercise regime and help from friends who paid for more food to be delivered to him (and a daily coconut) for much of his stay, he is then released and settled on Devil’s Island. Devil’s Island is the most difficult to escape from, given the dangerous, crashing seas that surround its jagged coast. Escape he does though, eventually, with a friend (Sylvain), on sacks of coconuts which were naturally buoyant. Though they set out together, Papillon and Sylvain do not land together. Papillon lives a brief life of freedom until he is captured again after sailing further from French Guiana and landing in Venezuela. Imprisoned for a year, whilst the Second World War is surging through Europe, he is finally released as a Venezuelan citizen and goes on to wed a Venezuelan, Rita, and live life as a free man.

Papillon’s story is an epic one. He survived the terrors of the French penal system by gaining the respect of his peers and therefore avoiding the inter-prisoner violence that plagued the system. Like many who could afford to, Papillon kept money (a charger) hidden with him, which bought him many life saving privileges both inside and out of prison, and had a form of defence (for example, a scalpel) whenever possible. Papillon’s respectful, intelligent, reasonable and straightforward nature also earned him the respect of many of the prison Governors, their wives, and the prison doctors, which he would eventually turn to his advantage, whether in terms of a break, or a better standard of living.

Papillon offers its readers a full and insightful view of the French penal system and often shares fascinating stories and experiences that Charriere learnt from other prisoners. It is believed that not all of what Charriere offers in his memoir is actually truthful from his experience, but instead adopting those experiences he had heard from others. Therefore, some believe this to be fiction, rather than a memoir.

Fiction or non-fiction, it does not detract from the excellence of the book. It is gripping and told in such a straightforward, unadulterated manner that it is possible to steam through the generous text. Occasionally, Charriere admits to getting bogged down in the banalities of the system and prison life, but these enhance the understanding of the subject. It is a great read, brutal yet beautiful, and I would recommend it to all.

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