Book Review – Papillon

Some people are born great writers. Some become great writers after penning many average books. The majority just believe that they can never write anything worthwhile and simply never bother to try. But out of that majority there are always some who are great story tellers. You meet them from time to time in places like pubs. (Especially in pubs actually.) When they have a tale to tell people stop and listen intently. They are usually the kind of people you could never imagine sitting down typing their stories for a publisher, but they definitely keep you interested. They may not be the best at using the written word but they certainly have that ‘gift of the gab’ . Clearly Henri Charrière (aka Papillon) was one such person.

The book is written just as if Charrière was speaking the words of his story out loud – to his mates (probably in pub) – and then quickly writing them down before he forgot what he said. And it definitely works. When the book was first published in 1969 some literary critics claimed it was a work of genius. Whatever the so called writing experts have to say about it the style of a pub story-teller in print makes it such an easy book to read despite its length. (Over 550 pages of fairly small print.)

Quick Review

Don’t let that number of pages put you off though. I did. For many years. My dad had a copy and he read it decades ago. I now realise I should have also read it earlier. Just go for it. The book is written in sections covering certain subjects – such as the first breakout or first recapture for example – so you can choose to read small parts of it at a time if that makes it easier.

The boo covers Papillon’s arrest, trial and deportation to the infamous penal colony in French Guiana. It covers the trip to the ship that takes the prisoners across the ocean. The ocean crossing is well detailed as is the spells in solitary confinement. There are several prison breaks one of which lasts for several chapters as he lives a basic yet happy existence with an Indian tribe.

Charriére carries a constant desire for revenge throughout the whole story. He clearly feels he was unjustly convicted; framed in fact. But during the course of the story he comes to admit that he was no angel (he wasn’t) and that living the life he had chosen, among criminals, would inevitably lead to his downfall sooner or later.

Book versus Film

As usual the movie is only based on the book. Now I have read the book I would say that the film is disappointing as it could have covered far more of the overall story.

The film (and I refer to the Steve McQueen version made only a few years after the book became a best-seller) famously ends with Papillon drifting out to sea on a raft made of coconuts. But that was only about 75% of the way through the book! There was still plenty of the story left to tell – almost a quarter of the book. Difficult to cram so much into a movie timeframe I know. The 2017 remake movie is pretty much the same as the McQueen version as I have covered here in the past. What would have worked so much better with a story covering so many years and so much action is a multi-episode series. The kind they do now for almost any subject on platforms like Netflix. Something for the future perhaps?

How much of it is true?

After reading Charrière’s book I was surprised to learn that questions have been raised as to its authenticity. Some of the adventures and events in Papillon are thought to have been at least partly taken from another book.

I discovered that there was another similar book written in 1938 by René Belbenoit, another former ‘guest’ at the French penal colony. The book is called Dry Guillotine; Fifteen Years Among The Living Dead. It turns out that this René also escaped and had similar tales to tell as Papillon. Or rather the other way around, as Papillon was written some three decades later. I managed to download a copy of Dry Guillotine which I have started reading. It has even more pages than Papillon.

There was also another guy called Charles Brunier who served France in the first world war and was wounded in action. In 1923, however, he was accused of murder and armed robbery, and later convicted and sent to the penal colony of French Guiana. After the outbreak of World War II he escaped to Mexico and joined the Free French Forces as a fighter pilot for two years before transferring to the infantry He  also served in Africa and Italy; he was imprisoned again after the war, but released in 1948 in recognition of his services. Brunier later lived for many years in an old people’s home in a Paris suburb. He died in 2007 aged an incredible 105. He survived Charrière (Papillon) by some thirty years. 

He was in the French penal colony at the same time as Papillon and Brunier also had a tattoo of a butterfly. Who knows? Maybe butterfly tattoos were just popular in those days.


None of this information spoiled my enjoyment of Papillon however. Nor is it going to stop me recommending it to everyone as a great read. With all the characters in the book there will certainly be cross-overs and shared tales. No doubt Charrière embellished some of his own stories with the real actions of others. Why not? A little poetic licence makes for a better story. The overall plot and nature of the events was certainly very real for Charrière and thousands of other men. It is definitely a book about hardships, escapes and torture. An uplifting story of human endurance and survival. A story that made for (what turned out to be) a great feel-good movie. Whether the book is about the adventures of just one man or not, it tells a gruesome history of the French penal system and is compelling reading.

If you are like me when it comes to reading, then a book this size is hard to start. But trust me, once you get into the story it is even harder to put down. I am going to go out on a limb here and say it’s a book every man should read. Now that is not at all sexist. There are loads of lists of books that “men should read”. Just search up online. Anyway I think that women would also find this a great book.

I enjoyed it so much that I bought the follow up book, Banco – The Further Adventures of Papillon. That was equally as easy to read but shorter. I may review that one some other time…

‘Gift of the gab’: One dictionary definition of the phrase…

The ability to speak easily and confidently in a way that makes people want to listen to you and believe you.

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