Aaron Arnold's Reviews > Papillon

Papillon by Henri Charrière
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Dec 17, 13

bookshelves: fiction, read-in-2011
Read in May, 2011

I don't care if this book wasn't a 100% factual, honest-to-God documentary account of what actually happened to this guy - it was a magnificent adventure novel, full of blood and drama and action. From what I can tell, Charrière cobbled the narrative out of his own experiences as a prisoner in the pitiless camps of 1930s French Guyana, plus the stories of a few camp-mates, plus his own dramatic license, emerging with a masterpiece. There were many moments where the story is less than totally plausible (if you created a drinking game where you took a shot each time a beautiful woman befriended him out of the blue, or people started doing favors for him for no reason, or an important official preposterously took him into their trust, you would be dead drunk inside of three chapters), and yet Charrière crafted a completely absorbing tropical world of hardened criminals, miserable wretches, forbidding prisons, thrilling escapes, and all-around awesome displays of survival.

I think my favorite part, out of a lot of great parts, was Papillon's moment of agonizing choice about a third of the way in, between staying in his beautiful Venezuelan paradise with his two new-found native wives, and returning to seek "vengeance" on what he thinks is the unjust society that shipped him halfway across the world to rot in a jungle charnel house. He idiotically chooses to leave this blissful native paradise, but even when I was cursing him for being a fool I thought his reflections on the differences between the "civilized" European culture who'd condemned him and the indigenous cultures who'd adopted him were well-written and interesting in the light of the complicated relationship Western countries have had with their colonies. The French, while not exactly angels, were often more willing than their neighbors the Spanish and the British to go native and peacefully blend into the various cultures who inhabited their colonies.

While I think he overdid the Noble Savage trope a little bit, in terms of the story it makes the protagonist the perfect lone wolf badass who's as at home charming the well-to-do wives of the colonial administrators as he is getting laid with the daughters of whatever tribal chieftains he runs into. Another one of my favorite parts was his first experience in solitary at Devil's Island - I've read other books with prison scenes in them, but his description of the soul-crushing loneliness it engenders is one of the best, and was surely the prototype for countless others. And of course all his various escape attempts are amazing too, but every part of the book can't be your favorite, that's like having dessert for every meal, something only a child would do. This book hit me squarely on that kind of undiluted childish pleasure level. I wish I'd read it when I was twelve, it would have been the perfect companion to The Count of Monte Cristo and Robinson Crusoe. Now to go track down the movie!
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message 1: by Avidreader (new) - added it

Avidreader Excellent review! Makes me want to dig through all my paperbacks and pull the book out to read again! Just finished watching the film and the determination & grit of Charriere is found in the film as well. Screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, one of the blacklisted Hollywood writers of the McCarthy era.

Sandy Good review. I agree. What does it matter if it is not 100% verifiably factual? It is a gripping story!

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