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Papillon (book)

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Title: Papillon (book)  
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Subject: Devil's Island, Reader's Digest Condensed Books, Papillon, Ra. Ki. Rangarajan, Prison of St-Laurent-du-Maroni
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Papillon (book)

First edition (French)
Author Henri Charrière
Translator Patrick O'Brian
Country France
Language French
Genre Autobiographical novel
Publisher Robert Laffont (French)
Hart-Davis, MacGibbon (English)
Publication date
Published in English
January 1970
Pages 516 (French)
Followed by Banco

Papillon is a memoir by convicted felon and fugitive Henri Charrière, first published in France in 1969, describing his escape from Devil's Island, part of the French penal colony in French Guiana. It became an instant bestseller. It was translated into English from the original French by June P. Wilson and Walter B. Michaels for a 1970 edition, and later by author Patrick O'Brian. The book was adapted for a Hollywood 1973 film of the same name.

Charrière said that all events in the book were truthful and accurate, allowing for minor lapses in memory. Since the book's publication, there have been questions about its accuracy. Not all the events and jails which he describes correspond to the time frame of the events in the book. It is best regarded as a narrative novel, depicting the adventures of several of Charrière's fellow inmates, among them Charles Brunier.[1][2]

Charrière reportedly had a reputation as a great storyteller. Critics have suggested that Papillon is more about a fictional character than the author. Charrière always said his account was true, and that he told the story to a professional writer, who drafted it in final form. The publisher, Robert Laffont, in a late interview before his death, said that the work had been submitted to him as a novel. Laffont specialised in publishing true adventures. He persuaded Charrière to release the book as an autobiography. The book's title was based on Charrière's nickname, derived from a butterfly tattoo on his chest. Papillon is the French word for 'butterfly'.

Charrière published a sequel, Banco in 1973.


The book is an account of a 14-year period in Papillon's life (October 26, 1931 to October 18, 1945), beginning when he was wrongly convicted of murder in France and sentenced to a life of hard labor at the Devil's Island penal colony in French Guiana. He eventually escaped from Devil's Island and settled in Venezuela. He lived and prospered there.

Papillon endured a brief stay at a prison in Caen. As soon as he was put aboard a vessel bound for South America, he learned about the brutal life that prisoners endured at the prison colony. Violence and murders were common among the convicts. Men were attacked for many reasons, including money, which most kept in a charger (a hollow metal cylinder which was lodged in the rectum; it has also been called a plan). Papillon befriended Louis Dega, a former banker convicted of counterfeiting. He agreed to protect Dega from attackers trying to get his charger.

Upon arriving at the penal colony, Papillon claimed to be ill and was sent to the infirmary. There he collaborated with two men, Clousiot and André Maturette, to escape from the prison. They planned to use a sailboat acquired with the help of the associated leper colony at Pigeon Island. The Maroni River carried them to the Atlantic Ocean, and they sailed to the northwest, reaching Trinidad.

In Trinidad the trio were joined by three other escapees; they were aided by a British family, the Dutch bishop of Curaçao, and several others. Nearing the Colombian coastline, the escapees were sighted. The wind died and they were captured and imprisoned again.

In Colombian prison, Papillon joined with another prisoner to escape. Some distance from the prison, the two went their separate ways. Papillon entered the Guajira peninsula, a region dominated by Native Americans. He was assimilated into a coastal village whose specialty was pearl diving. There he married two teenage sisters and impregnated both. After spending several months in relative paradise, Papillon decided to seek vengeance against those who had wronged him.

Soon after leaving the village, Papillon was captured and imprisoned at Santa Marta, then transferred to Barranquilla. There, he was reunited with Clousiot and Maturette. Papillon made numerous escape attempts from this prison, all of which failed. He was eventually extradited to French Guiana.

As punishment, Papillon was sentenced to two years of solitary confinement on Île Saint-Joseph (an island in the Îles du Salut group, 11 kilometers from the French Guiana coast). Clousiot and Maturette were given the same sentence. Upon his release, Papillon was transferred to Royal Island (also an island in the Îles du Salut group). An escape attempt was foiled by an informant (whom Papillon stabbed to death). Papillon had to endure another 19 months of solitary confinement. His original sentence of eight years was reduced after Papillon risked his life to save a girl caught in shark-infested waters.

After French Guiana officials decided to support the pro-Nazi Vichy Regime, the penalty for escape attempts was death, or capital punishment. Papillon decided to feign insanity in order to be sent to the asylum on Royal Island. Insane prisoners could not be sentenced to death for any reason, and the asylum was not as heavily guarded as Devil's Island. He collaborated on another escape attempt but it failed; the other prisoner drowned when their boat was destroyed against rocks. Papillon nearly died as well.

Papillon returned to the regular prisoner population on Royal Island after being "cured" of his mental illness. He asked to be transferred to Devil's Island, the smallest and considered the most "inescapable" island in the Îles de Salut group. Papillon studied the waters and discovered possibilities at a rocky inlet surrounded by a high cliff. He noticed that every seventh wave was large enough to carry a floating object far enough out into the sea that it would drift toward the mainland. He experimented by throwing sacks of coconuts into the inlet.

He found another prisoner to accompany him, a pirate Sylvain. He had sailed in southeast Asia, where he was known to raid ships, killing everyone aboard for their money and goods. The two men jumped into the inlet, using sacks of coconuts for flotation. The seventh wave carried them out into the ocean. After days of drifting under the relentless sun, surviving on coconut pulp, they made landfall at the mainland. Sylvain sank in quicksand after having abandoned his coconut sack.

On the mainland, Papillon encountered Cuic Cuic, the brother of Chang. Cuic Cuic had built a hut on an "island" of solid ground surrounded by quicksand; he depended on a pig to find the safe route over the quicksand. The men and the pig made their way to El Dorado, a small mining town near the Gran Sabana region. Surviving horrible conditions there, and finding diamonds, Papillon was eventually released. He gained Venezuelan citizenship and celebrity status a few years later.

Film adaptation

The book was adapted as a 1973 film of the same name, starring Steve McQueen as Henri Charrière and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega. Differences include a section of the movie set in the mainland penal colony. This does not occur in the book. The film received largely positive reviews.[3]

See also

  • Rene Belbenoit, Devil's Island convict and author of Dry Guillotine, Fifteen Years Among The Living Dead (1938)
  • Charles Brunier, Devil's Island convict with a butterfly tattoo, who in 2005 claimed to have been the inspiration for Papillon
  • Clément Duval, Devil's Island escapee and memoirist whose story was also said to have inspired Papillon


  • ISBN 0-06-093479-4 (560 pages; English; paperback; published by Harper Perennial; July 1, 2001)
  • ISBN 0-246-63987-3 (566 pages; English; hardcover; published by Hart-Davis Macgibbon Ltd; January, 1970)
  • ISBN 0-85456-549-3 (250 pages; English; large-print hardcover; published by Ulverscroft Large Print; October, 1976)
  • ISBN 0-613-49453-9 (English; school and library binding; published by Rebound by Sagebrush; August, 2001)
  • ISBN 0-7366-0108-2 (English; audio cassette; published by Books on Tape, Inc.; March 1, 1978)


  1. ^ "If this is correct; the 'real' Papillon", Rue Rude
  2. ^ "Ex-convict aged 104 claims to be Papillon", The Telegraph
  3. ^ "(1973)"Papillon . Rotten Tomatoes. 

External links

  • "The Fabulous Escapes of Papillon".  
  • "Devil's Island: Reform Comes At Last to France's Most Notorious Penal Colony".   A contemporary look at the then functioning "Devil's Island" during Henri's time there.
  • "Henri Charrière - Papillon". Caricatures.  Article which refutes some claims made by Charrière in the book.
  • Articles published in O Rebate which deny Charrière's, account:
    • Fries, Ronald (December 2, 2004). "Assunto: A farsa de um Papillon. (Macaé, ano I, Nº 49 - 5 a 12 de janeiro de 2007)". O Rebate (in Português) (Brazil). 
    • "A GRANDE FARSA (Macaé, ano I, Nº 34 - 15)". O Rebate (in Português) (Brazil). September 22, 2006. 
    • "A VERDADEIRA HISTÓRIA DE PAPILLON (Macaé, ano II, Nº 54 - 9 a 16 de fevereiro de 2007)". O Rebate (in Português) (Brazil). 
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