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1st English edition
Author Henri Charrière
Translator Patrick O'Brian
Country France
Language French
Genre(s) Autobiographical novel
Publisher Hart-Davis Macgibbon Ltd
Publication date 1969
Published in
Jan 1970
Pages 566 (Hardcover)

Papillon is a memoir by convicted felon and fugitive Henri Charrière, first published in France in 1969 which became an instant bestseller at the time. It was translated into English from the original French by June P. Wilson and Walter B. Michaels for a 1970 edition, and also by author Patrick O'Brian. Soon afterward the book was adapted for a Hollywood film.

According to its author, Papillon is an autobiographical novel. In reality nowadays it is at best regarded as a narrative novel, depicting the adventures of several of Charrière's fellow inmates, among them Charles Brunier.[1][2] Thus, Papillon is more a fiction character than the real man who was the author. Charrière, who had a reputation as a great fantasizer and storyteller, always maintained that his account was accurate and true, and that the story was dictated by him and put to the written word by a professional writer. In an interview before he died, the publisher, Robert Laffont, admitted that the book was originally submitted to him as a novel. Laffont, who specialised in real-life adventures, persuaded Charrière to release it as if it were an autobiography. The book's title was based on Charrière's nickname, derived from a butterfly tattoo on his chest (papillon being the French word for 'butterfly').

Charrière followed the book with a sequel (Banco) in 1973.



The book is a half-fictitious[3] account of a fourteen-year period in Papillon's life (October 26, 1931 to October 18, 1945) from when he was wrongly convicted of murder in France and sentenced to a life of hard labor at the Devil's Island penal colony, to when he escaped from prison to ultimately settle in Venezuela, where he lived and prospered, free from French justice.

Papillon endured a brief stay at a prison in Caen. As soon as Papillon boarded the vessel bound for South America, he learned about the brutal life that prisoners must endure at the prison colony. Murders were not uncommon among convicts, and men were cut with makeshift knives for their charger (a hollow, metal cylinder containing money that is lodged in the rectum; it has also been called a plan). Papillon befriended a former banker convicted of counterfeiting named Louis Dega. He agreed to protect Dega from those seeking to murder him for his charger.

Arriving at the penal colony, Papillon immediately claimed to be ill and was sent to the infirmary. There he collaborated with two individuals named Clousiot and André Maturette to escape from the prison by a sailboat, which they acquired with the assistance of the penal settlement's leper colony at Pigeon Island. They let the current of the Maroni River take them to the Atlantic Ocean, after which they began to sail to the north-west.

In Trinidad the trio were joined by three other escapees and were helped on their journey by a British family, the Dutch bishop of Curaçao and several others. Nearing the Colombian coastline, the escapees were sighted; they could not escape for lack of wind, were captured and were then imprisoned.

In the Colombian prison, Papillon joined with another prisoner to escape. After going some distance from the prison, the two went their separate ways. Papillon entered the Guajira peninsula, a region dominated by Native Americans. He was assimilated into a coastal village whose specialty was pearl diving, married two teenage sisters and impregnated them. After spending several months in relative paradise, Papillon became motivated to seek vengeance against those that wronged him.

Soon after leaving the cottage, Papillon was imprisoned at Santa Marta, then transferred to Barranquilla. There, he was reunited with Clousiot and Maturette. Papillon made numerous escape attempts from this prison, all failing. He was eventually extradited back to French Guiana.

As punishment, Papillon was sentenced to two years of solitary confinement on Île Saint-Joseph (an island in the Îles du Salut group, 11 kilometers from the French Guiana coast). Clousiot and Maturette were given equal sentences. Upon release, Papillon was transferred to Royal Island (also an island in the Îles du Salut group). An escape attempt was foiled by an informant (who Papillon stabbed to death for the act) and Papillon was again sent to solitary confinement, this time for nineteen months. The original sentence of eight years was reduced after Papillon risked his life to save the life of a girl caught in shark-infested waters.

After French Guiana officials decided to support the pro-Nazi Vichy Regime, the penalty for any escape attempt became capital punishment. Realizing this, Papillon decided to feign insanity and be sent to the insane asylum on Royal Island. His reasoning was that insane prisoners could not be sentenced to death for any reason and the asylum was under less heavy guard. He collaborated with another prisoner, but this escape attempt failed. When they were attempting to sail away, their boat was destroyed against the rocks, the other prisoner drowned and Papillon was nearly dashed against the rocks as well.

Papillon returned to the regular prisoner population on Royal Island after being "cured" of his mental illness. He requested that he be transferred to Devil's Island, the smallest and most "inescapable" island in the Iles de Salut group. Studying the waters around the island, Papillon discovered a rocky inlet surrounded by a high cliff where he noticed that every seventh wave would be large enough to carry something on the water far enough out into the sea to drift towards the mainland. He experimented by throwing sacks of coconuts into the inlet.

Papillon found another prisoner, a pirate named Sylvain who had previously sailed along southeast Asia, to go along with this escape attempt. The pirate was famous for raiding ships in the Far East. He would then kill everyone aboard. They threw themselves into the inlet with sacks of coconuts to float on. The seventh wave carried them out into the ocean. After days of drifting on the ocean under the relentless sun, surviving only on coconut pulp, they arrived at the mainland. However, the other prisoner left his coconut sack prematurely and was devoured by quicksand.

Papillon then navigated the mainland to find a Chinese man named Cuic Cuic, the brother of Chang. Cuic Cuic protected himself by making a hut on an "island" of solid ground surrounded by quicksand. His pig was adept at finding a navigable route over the quick sand. The men and the pig made their way to Georgetown, Guyana, by boat. Though he could have lived there as a free man, Papillon decided to continue northwesterly in the company of five other escapees. Reaching Venezuela, the men were captured and imprisoned at the mobile detention camps in the vicinity of El Dorado, a small mining town near the Gran Sabana region. Surviving horrible conditions there, and even finding diamonds, Papillon was eventually released, obtaining Venezuelan citizenship and celebrity status a few years later.

Film adaptation

In 1973, a film based on the book was made which starred Steve McQueen as Henri Charrière and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega.



External links


  • ISBN 0-06-093479-4 (560 pages; English; paperback; published by Harper Perennial; July 1, 2001)
  • ISBN 0-246-63987-3 (566 pages; English; hardcover; published by Hart-Davis Macgibbon Ltd; January, 1970)
  • ISBN 0-85456-549-3 (250 pages; English; large-print hardcover; published by Ulverscroft Large Print; October, 1976)
  • ISBN 0-613-49453-9 (English; school and library binding; published by Rebound by Sagebrush; August, 2001)
  • ISBN 0-7366-0108-2 (English; audio cassette; published by Books on Tape, Inc.; March 1, 1978)


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