Top positive review
49 people found this helpful
"I don't belong here - I'm only visiting"
on January 5, 2004
When Henri Charriere finds himself sent to a French prison colony for a crime he did not commit, he makes up his mind to go on a "cavale," literally to beat it and escape the custody of his captors. Like the butterfly (or in French "Papillon") which Charriere has tattooed to his chest, he will live his life in freedom or not at all. When a doctor questions him about his repeated escape attempts, Papillon's reply is matter-of-fact: "I don't belong here - I'm only visiting."
"Papillon" takes a while to get started, and Charriere's elusive and terse tone keeps one from feeling too close to the narrator. He tells you he didn't kill the man the police claim he did, but credits himself for not being a stool pigeon by telling them who did. So he's not exactly Dreyfus here, though he pretends otherwise at times. He mentions a wife and child in the outset almost as afterthoughts, then scarcely refers to them again. No false modesty for this guy - he runs the roost in every clink he is assigned, dispensing wisdom to prisoner and warden alike. No physical challenge is too much for him to overcome, no fellow "mec" too much for him to handle.
Let's put it this way: If Charriere is selling bridges, I ain't buying. But if this is more fiction than fact, "Papillon" still makes for one amazing novel. With minimal pretense at craft, Charriere crafts a white-knuckle, plain-spoken suspense tale that finds our hero in every imaginable predicament - and some not at all imaginable - as he makes attempt after attempt to escape the hell on earth that is French Guiana, the three Iles du Salut (literally "Isles of Salvation"), and ultimately Devil's Island. Taking you from the lush, mosquito-choked jungles of the Caribbean coastline to a solitary confinement where Papillon stays sane by imagining himself in childhood haunts, this is about as picturesque a ride as you can have sitting in your comfy chair.
A sense of life abounds in this book. Charriere holds court on such things as the proper way to sleep in a hammock, how one secretes money on one's "person," how the sharks knew when a corpse was about to be dumped in the sea, the strange tales prisoners tell, how one fishes for mullet on Devil's Island, etc. How much of this is on the level is tough to tell, but it fills the mind with a sense of a world lived in, and in one of the world's most obscure corners at that.
Whatever else, one statement Charriere makes is no doubt true: He is a spellbinding storyteller. He has a sense of the tragic and the funny and never lets the storyline sag. He also throws in nice little asides that keep the reader engaged. At one point, when he is thrown in solitary, Charriere takes a break from relating his squalor to offer this merry assurance: "The movie could not stop there; it must go on. It will go on, mecs! Just give me time to get back my strength and you'll have some new episodes, never fear!"
What makes "Papillon" especially readable and gripping is how Charriere comes into contact with the best and worst in people, sometimes the same people. The most seemingly depraved people can turn out to be not all bad; finding your hermit-like host keeps dead bodies in a pit outside his home is not necessarily proof he is out to do the same to you. He also has an intriguing religious sensibility, which yo-yos between antagonistic disbelief to a sense of profound grace. "Where there's life, there's hope" is an oft-repeated maxim in the book, and they are not hollow words for Papillon, whatever his state. Despair is unknown to him, and he's heartening to read for that alone.
I'd love to know how much of this tale is true. Apparently, there is a French-language book that analyzes the story of "Papillon" from a historical context, and the History Channel in the United States did a documentary you can order online. The little I've seen indicates some holes in the number of escape attempts Charriere made. But he was a prisoner, and then he was free; he wrote a book that, if just 10% true, would be enough to fill out four or five adventuresome lives; and his legacy is one people still passionately relate to more than 30 years after his death. I can't give this book five stars only because of this trust factor, but rest assured "Papillon" is worth your time, and you will be happy you read it.