My review of Papillon

Papillon -- the semi-autobiographical account of Henri Charriere's escape from a French penal colony -- was a rage when it first released in 1969. It had a little something for everyone; a swashbuckling hero's escape from a corrupt regime's clutches, set in exotic tropical locales. True to his name, Papillon rises above his inner demons like a delicate butterfly, seeking redemption. 

Sadly, I don't think the book has retained its pre-eminence these days among casual readers like me. I discovered the book from a most unusual source, the Wikipedia article on Indianapolis Colts starting QB, Andrew Luck, who apparently regards Papillon as his favorite book. I ordered the book on Amazon and read it over this Thanksgiving break. 

TL;DR: To put it simply, this is an excellent book. It's a truly remarkable story written in engaging and accessible language.  I urge everyone to check it out. 

The location. The book is largely set in the French penal colony of French Guiana. Before this book, I was not aware that French Guiana is still an overseas region of France. The vestiges of colonialism rankle me. I have always maintained that the colonial masters exhibited their worst tendencies in the colonies. The British exploitation of India will forever stain the hands of that great nation. France turned Guiana into a penal colony (dubbed bagne) for the worst of its society -- convicted felons, lepers, political prisoners and uncooperative journalists. The nation of Liberté, égalité, fraternité built and maintained vast prison complexes that would put dictators to shame. These prisons don't seem to have the visceral brutality of Nazi concentration camps or Stalinist gulags. The French prisons operated with a ruthless efficiency, of the mass-produced industrialized kind, that stripped prisoners of their basic humanity. In one of his many failed attempts at escape (aka cavale), Papillons finds himself in a Columbian prison where the guards tied prisoners to yokes and put them to work. Any lapses by the prisoners are rewarded with the most consummate thrashing. And yet, Papillons considers this better than the bagne, because the prison exposes its human side to the prisoners.  Instead, the bagne is a nameless, faceless, multi-limbed system of systematized repression hiding behind the mask of culture and justice. Using his personal tale of wrongful conviction, Papillon exposes this inner hypocrisy of French society. 

The cavales. In his 14 years of captivity, Papillon attempts many cavales, each less intricate then the previous - evidence of his growing desperation. A significant portion of the book is devoted to his first cavale, easily the best part of the book. Papillon takes us along a breathless escape, first into the high seas and later into the dark jungles of Columbia and Venezuela. The not-so-brief interlude of his startlingly sexual times with the tribal Indians gets wearisome after its initial jolts. This cavale begins with a big bang and ends with a long, drawn-out diplomatic struggle. When Papillon finally boards the ship back to the bagne, his disappointment seeps out of the pages. 

The prison. After the first cavale and a subsequent solitary confinement, Papillon finds himself on the  Îles du Salut - an archipelago of prison islands. Unlike in a conventional prison, the prisoners have a lot of freedom on the islands. They can cook, fish, gamble and sleep around. The island economy is subsisted by a flourishing black market for contraband involving the guards, officers and their wives. Prisoners are lulled into a sense of security and purpose that quenches their thirst for freedom. Papillon struggles to keep his spirit of cavale alive amidst these comforts. Papillon's portrayal of the prison society bears a childhood lightheartedness, but occasionally shocks us with fantastic revelations. 
Shortcomings. I have two issues with this book. The first is with its uneven pace. The book canters along for most part, but at the very end, breaks into a breathless sprint. The things that made the first cavale so memorable - the descriptive detail, the surprise of discovery, the continual rumination on a backward, but enlightened society - are all missing in his last cavale. By the end of the book, I was emotionally invested in Papillon, so I felt let down by the abrupt success of his last cavale. The second issue is with Papillon himself. Throughout the book, Papillon tries very hard to portray himself as the wronged person. Understandably, his penalties were disproportionate to his misdeeds. But Papillon must be called out for what he is - a thief and a murderer. His diatribes against an faceless system are as valid as his morally compromised personality. Any reader who refuses to recognize this fact has been successfully fooled by Papillon.  

To summarize, Papillon is a great book that deserves to be back in fashion. 


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