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Papillon (P.S.) Paperback – August 1, 2006
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“A first-class adventure story.” (New York Review of Books)
“[Papillon] is the ultimate hero defying the ultimate system of oppression and succeeding by dint of will, optimism...[and] a sense of honor given only to West Point graduates and Paris thieves.” (New York Times)
“The greatest adventure story of all time.” (Auguste Le Breton)
“A modern classic of courage and excitement.” (Janet Flanner (Gênet), The New Yorker)
From the Back Cover
Henri Charrière, called "Papillon," for the butterfly tattoo on his chest, was convicted in Paris in 1931 of a murder he did not commit. Sentenced to life imprisonment in the penal colony of French Guiana, he became obsessed with one goal: escape. After planning and executing a series of treacherous yet failed attempts over many years, he was eventually sent to the notorious prison, Devil's Island, a place from which no one had ever escaped . . . until Papillon. His flight to freedom remains one of the most incredible feats of human cunning, will, and endurance ever undertaken.
Charrière's astonishing autobiography, Papillon, was published in France to instant acclaim in 1968, more than twenty years after his final escape. Since then, it has become a treasured classic -- the gripping, shocking, ultimately uplifting odyssey of an innocent man who would not be defeated.
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True, Charrière more often than not comes across as a bit of an incarcerated flâneur with a sort of noblesse oblige toward everyone involved, from fellow prisoners to guards, wardens, administrators, the lot. But he has a sense of humour about his own hyperbolic amour-propre which makes it endurable. At one point, faced with a dilemma in this moral code of his, he writes:
"I smiled at the prospect of having to search out an evil policeman with no family. How should I put it to him:'If I kill you, are you sure no one will miss you?'"
Very droll, Papi.
All this aside, what marks this book out from other books of the sort is the detailed descriptions of the torrid conditions of the tropic zone where our hero spends his sentence. They are utterly convincing, and if there's one thing to which everyone agrees it's that, guilty or not, Henri Charrière did spend much of his life on penal colonies such as the Île-Royale, described thus:
"The noon sun was leaden-a tropical sun to boil the brain in your skull; a sun that shrivelled the plants not yet grown strong enough to resist it; a sun that, in a few hours, dried up all but the deepest salt-water pools, leaving only a white film of salt; a sun that set the air to dancing-it literally moved before my eyes-its reflection on the water burning my pupils."
In his second stay in solitary confinement, he pens - perhaps a bit too overtly - a passage worthy of France's greatest writer, who famously confined himself to a cork-lined closet during much of his latter years:
"Such sharp recollections of moments and events fifteen years in the past, and the ability to relive them so intensely, can only be accomplished in a cell where you're cut off from all noise, in the most absolute silence. I can even see the yellow of Aunt Outine's dress. I could hear the wind in the chestnut trees, the dry noise a chestnut makes as it falls on the ground, or its soft thump when it hits a pile of leaves...And there was no one to stop me from rolling around in these memories and drinking in the peace so necessary to my battered soul."
Despite the nod Proust-wards here, there can be no doubt in the reader's mind after finishing the book, despite questions about specifics, that the writer has indeed been battered in soul and in body and seen the very best and the very worst of which humans are capable, and that the reader, vicariously, has done so as well.
As Papillon says about the halfway fictitious explanation of an incident concocted, in order to save their skins and positions, by both guards and prisoners for the administration on one of the colonies:
"It has since remained part legend, part true story."
So with "Papillon" and his harrowing tale of hope amidst the darkest adversity.
Papillion had me entranced, I can't explain in words the emotions I felt while reading Henri's story. The amount of detail and emotions he poured into his story literally makes you feel as if you're there, surviving, escaping, crying, loving, and living. I would recommend this story to anyone.
Pappilon is someone whose courage, honesty,intelligence and integrity is to this day admirable and noteworthy. Reading this book once a decade will become a personal tradition to remind me of the inherent good in all people.