Papillon is an autobiographical novel, in which Papillon tells his tale of imprisonment and escape from the notorious French penal colony in French Guiana, 1931-1941.
Autobiographical novel is a new genre for me, and it gave me a little trouble in deciding how I felt about this classic.
So, bear with me. Let me pretend for a moment that Papillon, the novel, is pure fiction, and that Papillon, the person, is a fictional character. I’d call this an exciting adventure of unjust imprisonment, inhuman conditions, daring escape, and the indomitable spirit of man. The narrator, Henri Charriére aka Papillon [French for butterfly], for the large butterfly tattoo on his chest, is a safecracker and thief in 1930s Paris underworld. He is framed, tried, and convicted for murder and sentenced to life in the infamous penal colony in French Guiana.
Papillon is by his own admission a criminal, but no murderer. If this is only fiction, I’d definitely classify him an unreliable narrator. No problem – the unreliable narrator is an effective literary device.
The penal colony in French Guiana, which includes Diable or Devil’s Island, is certainly infamous. It is the repository of France’s discarded citizens – those either unworthy or incapable of reform. Papillon calls it…
…guillotining of men without benefit of a guillotine.
After more than 10 years, and several failed attempts, Papillon manages to escape from inescapable Diable, along with a partner, by riding the tides on rafts made of coconuts. His partner nearly makes it, but dies in quicksand when they reach land. Papillon however, finally wins his freedom and becomes a legitimate and productive citizen of Venezuela.
An exciting and satisfying tale. If just a novel, I’d probably give it 4 stars.
Except – it isn’t pure fiction.
It is supposed to be autobiographical, as such the unreliable narrator is no longer just a literary device; if the author expects me to believe him, he needs to be reliable, and to be blunt, he isn’t. He was after all, a confirmed criminal – a dishonest man. His assertion of his innocence is rather self-serving, as are repeated assertions that all he wants is the chance to prove himself a productive member of society.
True, my punishment wasn't worthy of the French people, and if society need to protect itself, it didn't have to sink so low - but that's beside the point. I can't erase my past with a swipe of the sponge. I must rehabilitate myself in my own eyes first, then in the eyes of others.
Very noble, but he wrote these words after he’d gained his freedom. We can’t know his true motivation back in prison, but I suspect it was more about gaining freedom than proving his virtue. Finally, there is some rather compelling evidence that he borrowed details of some of his exploits from another author, casting further doubt on his reliability.
The definition of autobiographical novel is a bit fuzzy, and some fiction is allowed – but this felt much more like Charriére’s manifesto – to convince himself and the world that he was a decent fellow and a victim of French injustice.
I don’t really buy it. I’ll give him this though – he was a remarkable human being.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This novel satisfies A Classic in Translation (from French) for the Back to the Classics 2019 challenge.
Excerpts, all the words or thoughts of Papillon:
A society that had no intention of helping me. Men who couldn’t be bothered to find out if I was worth salvaging. A world that had rejected me and cast me beyond the reach of hope, into holes like this, where they had only one thing on their minds: to kill me off, no matter what.
Dear God, you’ve got to realize that I must live among civilized people and show them I’m capable of taking part in their lives without being a threat to them. That’s my real goal – with or without your help.
I looked around my cell. It was hard to believe that a country like mine, France, the cradle of liberty for the entire world, the land which gave birth to the Rights of Man, could maintain, even in French Guiana, on a tiny island lost in the Atlantic, and installation as barbarously repressive as the Réclusion [solitary confinement] of Saint-Joseph.
My duty to myself was not to get even, but above anything else, to live – to live in order to escape.
I touched God, I felt Him around me, inside me. He even whispered in my ear: “You suffer; you will suffer more. But this time I am on your side. You will be free. You will, I promise you.