Les Quatre Vérités de Papillon
Papillon was the literary wonder of the 1969 publishing season in France, a runaway best-seller which shot a sixty-year-old ex-convict, Henri Charrière, to fame and fortune and even turned him into a public personality, a respected guru to be consulted about the problems of life in press interviews and radio discussions. It would seem that not even the autobiographies of the two most famous living Frenchmen, the Mémoires of General de Gaulle and Les Mots by Jean-Paul Sartre, had achieved such record sales in so short a time.
In the publicity handout for the American edition, Charrière is, appropriately enough, shown walking arm in arm with Brigitte Bardot, a comparable sociological-cum-artistic phenomenon. He had the honor of being hailed as a true writer by the doyen of French novelists, the eighty-four-year-old François Mauriac, who died last month. M. Pompidou, the newly elected President of the Republic, revealed that he was taking the book away with him as holiday reading, and tacitly ignored the author’s anomalous situation as an escaped prisoner. All in all, it warms the cockles of the heart to think that a man can be a condemned murderer and a rather spectacular social failure for sixty years and then re-establish his position on the strength of one book. I remember years ago reading an interview with the pop singer, Johnny Ray, who was asked what it was like to be so famous. He replied: “I feel like God has taken me up in His arms and said, ‘Johnny Ray, I love you.’ ” M. Charrière may not be sure whether God or the Devil is his patron, but he too must have the sensation that Somebody in the universe has at last shown His love.
I read the book when it first came out and enjoyed it enormously as a first-class adventure story and another fascinating example of the picaresque. M. Charrière (nicknamed “Papillon” because of a butterfly tattoed on his chest) presents himself as a high-spirited, unruly, but fundamentally goodhearted young man, who was wrongly condemned to life imprisonment for murder at the age of twenty-five. The police framed him, the public prosecutor was a vulture, and the jury, a group of conformist petty bourgeois, were very pleased to show their disapproval of a handsome, smartly dressed young fellow, whose only weakness had been an understandable inability to toe the line. So profoundly indignant was he at his scandalous condemnation that he resolved, like the Count of Monte Cristo (whom he quotes), never to abdicate his spiritual independence, to resist the corrupting influence of life in the penal colony of French Guiana and to escape at the earliest possible moment in order to take his revenge.
This determination carried him through years of hardship and solitary confinement, inspired several break-out attempts, and won him the respect not only of his fellow prisoners but even of the penal authorities. After extraordinary adventures, he eventually managed to make a successful escape and landed up in Venezuela, where …