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VINE VOICEon 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.
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on June 25, 2007
The thing that Henri Charriere desired most was his freedom. A French prisoner, he never stopped plotting ways to escape. The only time when he didn't have a plan in motion was when he was either in solitary, or upon personal request of the warden (they would request that he didn't escape so that they could finish their term, and not have their record/pension ruined by his escape).

This autobiography spares no details about the violence and horrors that surrounded the prisoners daily. He loses a number of his friends to disease, or murder. Papillon was generally respected by his fellow prisoners, and the administration. He was quick to criticize the administration to their face. Many of the wardens and doctors even agreed with how screwed up the French justice system was.

Henri is very detailed about his experiences and escapes. He remembers well the people who aided him before, during and after an escape. You will find yourself rooting for Henri with each escape attempt!

There has been some criticism that say that Henri took details from other prisoners' accounts or that some of the anecdotes are made up. Regardless, this autobiographical tale of escape is better than any work of prison escape fiction that can ever be written.
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on November 28, 2008
Great book. Part novel. Part autobiography. Thrilling, compulsive and picturesque. But this is a truly terrible translation. It tries to emulate penal colony slang but fails. Get the UK version with the padlock/butterfly on the cover. It's by Patrick O'Brien (Master and Commander etc)
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on February 9, 2000
Papillon is the most moving true account of a time in a life I have had the luck to read. I have read all the reviews both here and on the UK site. Though it is the final word on perseverance, this is not the beauty of this book. No, it is not the narration, nor even the man himself or the breadth and depth of his adventures (though awesome). For me, it is the clear message that friendship is the greatest gift a person can have and give. It is friendship that allowed him to escape, to realize his dreams, to write his story. Where would he be without the kind Priest, how would he have planned the escape without Sierra, and what can you feel but shame (as did Papillon!) after the generosity of the lepers - how wholesome they seemed in their nature if not in their bodies. The examples are endless ( unlike this review - luckily! ) but the lesson is singular and clear.
This book is inspirational - no doubt - its inspiration is to gain self-esteem, to fortify yourself against those that would climb your walls to pull you down, but, above all, it is to be human to others around you. The inhumanity suffered by Papillon and others like him were at the hands of those who could not feel for others as Papi and his friends felt for others.
I read that one reviewer tattooed a butterfly on his chest in honour of Henri Charriere, for me, his story is tattooed on my mind. I think of his story and his friends as often as I do my own. The only other equally moving account of the power of friendship is "Of Mice and Men" by John Steinbeck.
My friends, those who have read the book and those thinking about it - all the best!
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on April 28, 2005
During my 10 years of reading i've read countless adventure stories, some where good others were excelant and some were bad but none even comes close to "Papillon". the debated question wether the story is true or not is hardly relevant, (althought i simply don't believe someone can make up tales in this level of authenticy and realism) this book is impossible to put down and the reader is sucked into Charriere's world within the first page.

If you can read only one book ,definitely read "Pappillon".
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on January 3, 2006
I first read Papillon over ten years ago. I borrowed a copy on the recommendation of a friend. Ten years later, the story called me back and again it blew me away.

Papillon is one of those rare books that leave you sad when you finally finish reading. Not sad for the character, but sad because the story has ended. It is an emotional roller coaster of a book that will have you crying one moment and laughing the next.

A must read.
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on June 27, 2005
I read this novel after seeing the Steve McQueen movie of the same name. In the movie, after Papillon's initial escape, I expected the movie to end, but as he experienced one amazing adventure after another, each wilder than the last, I felt as if I had gone into a movie-watching twilight zone of an unending action picture. I wanted to see if the book was more grounded than the movie.

The book is even further out there. It strikes me as a partially fictional memoir of Charriere's experiences in a French penal colony in South America. What rings true are the dehumanizing conditions Charriere and the other prisoners experienced. What I think he made up was most of his adventures after his escape. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. For example, whenever Papillon and his friends land on British or Spanish territory, they admit they are murderers,yet they are always welcomed eagerly by the local officials who are eager to show their disdain for the barbaric French penal system. But the thing that really struck me as odd was when Papillon was captured by a tribe of Indians. He married two beautiful teenage sisters whom he left pregnant, and fled with a fortune in pearls. (One of his wives made her living diving for oysters.) That section reads like the daydream of a man stuck in prison for a very long time.

The book is roughly written, and occasionally slows to a crawl as Papillon plans one unsuccessful escape after another, yet he is a wonderful storyteller and it is an excellent adventure, along the lines of "Beau Geste" or "The African Queen."
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on June 29, 2001
This book is always within easy reach on my shelf. For those of you that can read French, the French/original version actually has many stories that were shamelessly edited out when translated into English. Also throughout the book many descriptions are simply shorter in the English version since many words were cut out. There were many beautifully described adventures in Georgetown that the non-French reader will never know. The translation into American English is quite accurate in feeling. So if you're an American, make sure you get the version translated into American English since there is a strong difference. As an American I can't really appreciate the British English translation that was done to it to make it palatable to British tastes.
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on July 2, 2001
At first, forget about the film. I like Steve McQueen's Papillon too, but the real book is something totally different. Papillon, as the story is almost unbearably heavy and emotionally devastating to the reader. The book is a genuine monster of juxtaposition of Human and the World (that is both the human community and the nature) in the most extreme sense. I cannot raise the question of whether the story is all real and if Papillon went through the horrors that exceed imagination of a human of developed world like me. The narration simply does not allow for that, because the author has put so much of personality into his account and described the events and images so vividly. What though is most astonishing to me is the truthfulness and the solid bear reality. There is no attempt to amaze the reader, both the little aspects and the elevated emotional and moral phenomena are narratively presented in a clear and ordinary style, but with an unquestionable essence of purity and truth behind them.
It is also essential to apprehend the grand values that Papillon discovers, appreciates and highlights in his account. As a little example, the regular delivery of the little slip of paper from Dega and Grandet to Papillon in his solitary confinement cell on the Iles du Salut saying that they "are with him, will try to help and do hope" is essential. The reader realizes the incredible weight and importance of human support and friendship when one's in trouble or in loneliness. In normal life of a european, I find myself ignoring virtually millions of such little stimuli, for which Papi was so greatful and which kept him alive. I must admit I feel ashamed for this foolish nature of humans to ignore such small gifts when living in the relative luxury of the developed world.
From a literary point of view, the book is written in a very simple language, that does not employ any sophisticated linguistic devices. The language of Charriere is such due to him not being a writer. I feel though, that this factor is what makes the story so incredibly pure and substantial.
Henri Charriere has become a great teacher to me. Now that I have experienced possibly the greatest story of human experience, suffering and gradual purification of soul, my approach to every next minute of my life will be much more thankful. The values of friendship, reliability, absolute groundbreaking will AND honest truthfulness have been permanently engraved into my personality.
It is hard to imagine that many people of the world do not even know of Henri Charriere. It is sad to realize how many of them could become better people by experiencing his life story. Nevertheless, I deeply encourage you to read Papillon, no matter what your age or status. You will never regret it. Matej
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on February 29, 2000
Papillon is by far the best book that I have ever read. It is the most entising story about Henri Charriere. When you finish the book you love Papillon so much. You are routing for him the entire book to escape. Don't see the movie if you plan on reading the book because the movie is terrible .The first two years that he is in solitary confinment is the most depressing part of the book. You come out of the book admiring Papillon and really wanting to meet him. "Papillon" is a great book
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