Henri Charriere
Henri Charriere; drawing by David Levine

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 he became a law-abiding citizen, having by now abandoned all thoughts of vengeance. Here, by accident, he chanced upon a book, L’Astragale by Albertine Sarrazin, an account of an escape from prison in metropolitan France, and said to himself that if Mlle Sarrazin’s adventures could provide salable copy, his own more lurid experiences might also bring him in an honest franc or two. Accordingly, he bought a few exercise books and, following a time-honored French tradition, sat in a café day after day until he had filled them. They were at once accepted by the Laffont publishing house, which brought them out exactly as they were, apart from correcting a few Hispanicisms which were only to be expected in the style of a Frenchman who had not been back to France for thirty years.

This, in brief, is Charrière’s story, as it emerges from the French edition, and it sounds plausible enough on the surface, particularly since the book has a sort of obsessive quality. Without being “well-written” in a consciously literary way, it is full of flavor, concrete detail, and earthy reflectiveness. (Perhaps I should point out, incidentally, that the translation has been quietly abridged, as if the American publisher found Charrière long-winded, but I am sure this is a mistake, because the slightly garrulous effect and the homespun philosophizing are part of the charm.) Modestly yet persistently, the author builds up a picture of himself which corresponds to a number of contemporary assumptions about the heroic.

He is the “good” criminal versus the system, the individual with his own concept of morality which is truer than average social laws. He reveres the memory of his mother, who died when he was a small boy. He is virile, women gravitate toward him, and he appreciates their company without attaching more importance to them than a man should. His fellow outlaws respect him as a leader and, in one crisis, he is even in a position to bargain, as man to man, with the commander of the penal colony. He kills on occasion, but only when he has to, because someone has broken the unwritten conventions of outlaw honor. He withstands the inhuman discipline of the penal colony by a deliberate effort of self-control. He is endlessly resourceful and courageous during his escape attempts, building rafts, floating in shark-infested seas, toiling through the jungle, coping with South American Indians, Indians from India, Chinese, Dutch, English, and the various local varieties of Spanish and Portuguese. In short, he combines in his person many of the attractive features of Bonnie and Clyde, the Bird Man of Alcatraz, the Lone Ranger, Robinson Crusoe, and even Tarzan of the Apes.


The book will probably have a success in America because it is, among other things, what used to be called a “rattling good yarn,” but I should be surprised if it caused quite the same stir as in France. After all, this type of adventurousness is endemic in American literature and American folk culture. The French have fewer examples of it, and the mixture presented by Charrière is not only in sharp contrast to the conformism of average French bourgeois living but can also appear particularly compelling in France at the moment. For some time there has been a dearth of novels which “tell a story,” because of the fashionableness of the “New Novel,” which rejects the concepts of character and plot and is often austerely experimental in form. Charrière, being a “primitive” writer, is unself-consciously old-fashioned in matters of technique and exploits his storytelling gift to the full. He is also thoroughly middlebrow, with no ideological overtones.

Everybody can love an outlaw, provided he remains an anarchic individualist and avoids veering too obviously to the left or the right. There is a previous example of a celebrated French criminal writer—Jean Genet—but his appeal was necessarily limited: he was consistently high-brow in language and thought; he did not claim to have been unjustly condemned, but instead turned his antisocial attitude into an inverted philosophical and political system; and he was aggressively homosexual, which meant that he alienated the sympathies of the majority audience. Charrière, on the contrary, is the average Frenchman, as he imagines himself to be in his more paranoiac and adventurous moments, a brave victim of society, good-humored though often righteously indignant, and tirelessly inventive in his endeavor to live his own life and to assert his rights.

When I first read the book, I wondered about the plausibility of some episodes, in particular a meeting with an English family in Trinidad and an account of a sojourn with a savage Indian tribe. Both of these passages have an almost eighteenth-century, Utopian flavor, as if Charrière, who was after all the son of a schoolmaster, knew more about French literature than one might at first suppose and was borrowing certain conventional attitudes from writers such as Diderot or Bernadin de Saint-Pierre. There was also the rather disturbing fact that he recounted in direct speech conversations that had occurred twenty or thirty years before; however, this did not bother me much, because I took it to be a legitimate way of lightening the narrative, and in any case he claimed to have gone over every detail again and again in solitary confinement. But once his book had become famous, curiosity was aroused about his personality and he was exposed to public scrutiny in a way he had possibly not bargained for. The tangible result was the publication of two other books, which throw considerable doubt on the veracity of Papillon as a personal story.

Not that they are good books; as a writer, Charrière beats both his critics hollow, but this may not invalidate the essential points they make. Les Quatre Vérités, a very shoddy production, is concerned only with Charrière’s youth and the murder for which he was condemned. Although the author gives no information about his sources, one can only suppose that the police, irritated by Charrière’s attacks on them, commissioned Georges Ménager to refute his allegations with the help of official documents. Whether it is legal or not to publish confidential documents that have passed between police officers and examining magistrates I don’t know, but then it was hardly legal for Charrière to be in France. At any rate, it seems unlikely that Ménager could have invented these documents, and if they are authentic, they make Charrière’s guilt appear almost certain. One might think, in reading Papillon, that he was just sowing a few wild oats when the police gratuitously turned him into a victim.


In fact, if Ménager is right, he had been a delinquent since adolescence. He was a ponce, a drug-pusher, a petty thief, a police informer, and possibly a homosexual into the bargain. He shot his victim precisely because of the accusation of being an informer. Perhaps he meant only to frighten and not to kill, or perhaps he shot the wrong man by mistake and, with the common illogicality of delinquents, was convinced of his innocence, because he had not intended to murder that particular person. But there was no other suspect; he had gone into hiding after the murder, and his alibi collapsed. During the trial, he got his mistress, a registered prostitute, to make a false confession so as to delay proceedings. In other words, he was not much more than an average member of the criminal underworld. But he was also a Southerner with the gift of gab and a large share of personal vanity, and his book is a mythomaniacal piece of self-glorification.

Although Papillon Épinglé is much more sympathetic to Charrière, it magnifies this portrait without altering the emphasis. Gérard de Villiers claims to have gone to South America to visit the various places mentioned by Charrière and to have interviewed dozens of people with whom he had, or might have had, dealings. It is a pity that Villiers, like Ménager, is reticent about important points. Who put up the money for his trip? Was it his publisher or the police, or did he finance himself? When exactly did he go, and how did he manage to produce his book in so short a time? The narrative reads convincingly, but then so does Charrière’s. One cannot help feeling that it is a case of a big flea having lesser fleas upon his back to bite him.

Here again, however, the case against Charrière seems quite strong. Villiers points out many internal contradictions in the Papillon text in connection with dates, times, and places, such as the casual reader would not notice. He quotes evidence from surviving witnesses, mentioned by Charrière, to prove that there are innumerable inaccuracies in the book. The two episodes about which I was doubtful collapse completely. The Bowen family in Trinidad did not exist; there was only a Mr. Bowen, a bachelor, and the wife and daughter, so similar to characters in a sensible novel of the eighteenth century, are apparently a pure invention. Charrière cannot have been adopted by an Indian tribe, because it seems unlikely that he spent more than six or eight weeks with the Indians.

The majority of the anecdotes he relates did not happen to him at all, but are adaptations of stories he had heard about other people. Far from being one of the outstanding tough guys in the penal colony, he was a comparatively well-behaved convict, who was contentedly employed for a long time on latrine duty. He never escaped from Devil’s Island, and the heroic confrontation with the commander of the colony never occurred. His post-penal life in South America has always been rather marginal and has involved a relationship of semicomplicity with the police and the political authorities, a complicity which he has often generously exploited on behalf of other French ex-convicts.

Since, as far as I can tell, Charrière has never seriously attempted to answer these allegations, I am now inclined to believe that Papillon is an inextricable mixture of autobiography and fiction, written by a man who has always felt the need to invent a mythic version of his life for his own satisfaction. As I have mentioned, he is a méridional, and the Walter Mitty of French literature is another méridional, Tartarin of Tarascon, who was created by Alphonse Daudet in the late nineteenth century. Charrière would seem to be a Tartarin who actually had rather exceptional experiences, which he has enormously magnified and embellished in order to transmute them into an archetype of the heroic. He may be thoroughly unreliable, but one must admit that such mythomania, in itself, amounts to a kind of talent.

This Issue

October 8, 1970