Henri Charrière, Papillon
The world's greatest escapee tells his own story
Papillon, Henri Charrière’s bestselling memoir of his incarceration and escape from the French penal colony of Devil’s Island, has seen many iterations: the original French, the English translation, the epic film adaptation starring Steve McQueen, and now the audiobook, gruffly (and affectingly) interpreted by narrator Michael Prichard. Prichard’s Papillon is less of an American exceptionalist than McQueen’s — but not without reason.
Papillon (so nicknamed for the tattoo of a butterfly on his chest) spent 14 years alternately incarcerated and in various states of attempted escape before his success fleeing the Îles du Salut (part of French Guiana) for his eventual home of Venezuela. Those 14 years included several multi-year stints in solitary confinement, illness, attempted murders, and a death-defying cliff-diving episode from an “inescapable” island — think Alcatraz, but with sharks.
Prichard’s Charrière is blunted by these experiences. His focus on escape from the hellish conditions of Devil’s Island transitions from the loftiness of hope to full-fledged monomania. His friendships at the prison — the most notable of which is with the strategically valuable convicted forger Louis Dega — become subservient to his desire to flee, no matter how dangerous the attempt. When in the course of the multiple attempts other men die or, worse, give up, Charrière can only think about the next, even riskier method.
Listening to Papillon, one can’t help but think that the situation has all of the perfect ingredients to make a hero of its main character. Then you realize that it’s all true (if Charrière is to be believed) and it’s not a story about grand themes of salvation or redemption, but mere survival.