Papillon (book)

First edition (French)
Author Henri Charrière
Translator Patrick O'Brian
Country France
Language French
Genre Autobiographical novel
Publisher Robert Laffont (French)
Hart-Davis, MacGibbon (English)
Publication date
Published in English
January 1970
Pages 516 (French)
Followed by Banco

Papillon ([papijɔ̃], Butterfly) is an autobiographical novel written by Henri Charrière, first published in France on 30 April 1969. Papillon is Charrière's nickname, deriving from a butterfly tattoo inscribed on his chest. The novel details Papillon's incarceration and subsequent escape from the French penal colony of French Guiana, and covers a 14-year period between 1931 and 1945.

The impact of Papillon

The book was an immediate sensation and instant bestseller, achieving widespread fame and critical acclaim, and is considered a modern-day classic. Upon publication it spent 21 weeks as number 1 bestseller in France, with more than 1.5 million copies sold in France alone. 239 editions of the book have since been published worldwide, in 21 different languages.[1]

The book was first published in France by Robert Laffont in 1969, and first published in Great Britain by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1970, with an English translation by Patrick O'Brian. The book was adapted for a Hollywood film of the same name in 1973, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. Charrière also published a sequel to Papillon, called Banco, in 1973.

Papillon has been described as "The greatest adventure story of all time" (Auguste Le Breton) and "A modern classic of courage and excitement" (Janet Flanner, The New Yorker).

Autobiographical authenticity

Although Charrière always maintained, until his death in 1973, that events in the book were truthful and accurate (allowing for minor lapses in memory), since the book's publication there have been questions raised about its accuracy. The authenticity of the book was challenged most notably by French journalist Gerard de Villiers, author of Papillon Épinglé (Butterfly Pinned), who stated that "only about 10 percent of Charrière's book represents the truth".

Charrière reportedly had a reputation as a great storyteller, and critics have suggested that Papillon is more about a fictional character than the author. Charrière always said his account was true, and that he told the story to a professional writer, who drafted it in final form. The publisher, Robert Laffont, in a late interview before his death, said that the work had been submitted to him as a novel. Laffont specialised in publishing true adventures, and he persuaded Charrière to release the book as an autobiography.

As well as claims that not all events and jails which Charrière describes correspond to the time frame of events in the book, there are also similarities between sections of Papillon, and sections of a book written 30 years prior - La Guillotine Sèche (Dry Guillotine). Dry Guillotine, written by René Belbenoît, was published in 1938, and was also an autobiographical account of Belbenoît's incarceration on, and escape from, the French penal colony at French Guiana. The most notable similarities between these books were:

  • Both authors described similar encounters with Goajira Indians. Belbenoît and Charrière both stated that they had, whilst escaping the French penal colony, met and lived with tribes of Goajira Indians who lived on the Guajira Peninsula. Both also stated they had taken Indian wives during these periods.
  • Both authors also related a story about a group of escapees who had turned to cannibalism to survive. Whilst not necessarily unusual in itself, both authors also told how one member of the group of escapees had had a wooden leg, and that he had been killed and eaten by the group of escapees, and that his wooden leg has been used as a spit, or as kindling, for the cooking fire. Whilst Belbenoît stated in his book that he had been part of the group of escapees that had turned to cannibalism, Charrière related the story as having happened to a group of other inmates who were incarcerated in the French penal colony at the time of his stay.

Belbenoît and Charrière also related their experiences within solitary confinement slightly differently, with the description given by Belbenoît not being as severe as that by Charrière. Most notably Belbenoît states that all those in solitary confinement were let out of their cells for one hour per day for fresh air and exercise, whereas Charrière stated that those in solitary confinement were locked up for 24 hours a day.

Having questioned the accuracy of Papillon as an autobiography, there are a number of facts which are not in question, which do validate Charrière's novel. These include:

  • That French Guiana operated as a penal colony from 1852 until 1946. Those transported there ranged from political detainees to convicts of crimes like murder, rape, robbery and smaller petty crimes. Anyone receiving a sentence of more than eight years was exiled from France for life.[2]
  • That conditions at the penal colony were extremely severe - "Forty per cent of new arrivals to the colony perished within the first year. Of the 80,000 or so who were transported during the colony's 94-year existence, few made it back to France. Most were killed by the merciless nature of the forced labour, the poor diet and lack of protection from the myriad diseases rampant in the unfamiliar tropical environment. Many died during escape attempts, savaged by wild animals, ravaged by scurvy, or picked off by professional escapee hunters - or in the case of sea-bound escapes, drowned or were eaten by the sharks that infest the coastal waters."[2]
  • Charrière was born in the Ardèche, France, in 1906.[3]
  • Charrière was sentenced in 1931 to hard life for murder and sent to the French penal colony in French Guiana, from which he eventually escaped.
  • Charrière did escape, became a Venezuelan citizen, successful restaurateur and best-selling author.

Papillon is perhaps best regarded as a narrative novel, depicting the adventures of Charrière and several fellow inmates, among them Charles Brunier.[4][5]


The book is an account of a 14-year period in Papillon's life (October 26, 1931 to October 18, 1945), beginning when he was wrongly convicted of murder in France and sentenced to a life of hard labor at the Devil's Island penal colony in French Guiana. He eventually escaped from Devil's Island and settled in Venezuela. He lived and prospered there.

Papillon endured a brief stay at a prison in Caen. As soon as he was put aboard a vessel bound for South America, he learned about the brutal life that prisoners endured at the prison colony. Violence and murders were common among the convicts. Men were attacked for many reasons, including money, which most kept in a charger (a hollow metal cylinder which was lodged in the rectum; it has also been called a plan). Papillon befriended Louis Dega, a former banker convicted of counterfeiting. He agreed to protect Dega from attackers trying to get his charger.

Upon arriving at the penal colony, Papillon claimed to be ill and was sent to the infirmary. There he collaborated with two men, Clousiot and André Maturette, to escape from the prison. They planned to use a sailboat acquired with the help of the associated leper colony at Pigeon Island. The Maroni River carried them to the Atlantic Ocean, and they sailed to the northwest, reaching Trinidad.[6]

In Trinidad the trio were joined by three other escapees; they were aided by a British family, the Dutch bishop of Curaçao, and several others. Nearing the Colombian coastline, the escapees were sighted. The wind died and they were captured and imprisoned again.

In Colombian prison, Papillon joined with another prisoner to escape. Some distance from the prison, the two went their separate ways. Papillon entered the Guajira peninsula, a region dominated by Amerindians. He was assimilated into a coastal village whose specialty was pearl diving. There he married two teenage sisters and impregnated both. After spending several months in relative paradise, Papillon decided to seek vengeance against those who had wronged him.

Soon after leaving the village, Papillon was captured and 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 of which failed. He was eventually extradited 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 the same sentence. Upon his release, Papillon was transferred to Royal Island (also an island in the Îles du Salut group). An escape attempt was foiled by an informant (whom Papillon stabbed to death). Papillon had to endure another 19 months of solitary confinement. His original sentence of eight years was reduced after Papillon risked his life to save a girl caught in shark-infested waters.

After French Guiana officials decided to support the pro-Nazi Vichy Regime, the penalty for escape attempts was death, or capital punishment. Papillon decided to feign insanity in order to be sent to the asylum on Royal Island. Insane prisoners could not be sentenced to death for any reason, and the asylum was not as heavily guarded as Devil's Island. He collaborated on another escape attempt but it failed; the other prisoner drowned when their boat was destroyed against rocks. Papillon nearly died as well.

Papillon returned to the regular prisoner population on Royal Island after being "cured" of his mental illness. He asked to be transferred to Devil's Island, the smallest and considered the most "inescapable" island in the Îles de Salut group. Papillon studied the waters and discovered possibilities at a rocky inlet surrounded by a high cliff. He noticed that every seventh wave was large enough to carry a floating object far enough out into the sea that it would drift toward the mainland. He experimented by throwing sacks of coconuts into the inlet.

He found another prisoner to accompany him, a pirate named Sylvain. He had sailed in southeast Asia, where he was known to raid ships, killing everyone aboard for their money and goods. The two men jumped into the inlet, using sacks of coconuts for flotation. The seventh wave carried them out into the ocean. After days of drifting under the relentless sun, surviving on coconut pulp, they made landfall at the mainland. Sylvain sank in quicksand after having abandoned his coconut sack.

On the mainland, Papillon encountered Cuic Cuic, who had built a hut on an "island". The hut was set on solid ground surrounded by quicksand; Cuic Cuic depended on a pig to find the safe route over the quicksand. The men and the pig made their way to Georgetown, British Guiana, by boat. Papillon decided to continue to the northwest in the company of five other escapees. Reaching Venezuela, the men were captured and imprisoned at mobile detention camps in the vicinity of El Dorado, a small mining town near the Gran Sabana region. Surviving harsh conditions there, and finding diamonds, Papillon was eventually released. He gained Venezuelan citizenship and celebrity status a few years later.

Film adaptations

The book was adapted as a 1973 film of the same name, starring Steve McQueen as Henri Charrière and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega. Differences include a section of the movie set in the mainland penal colony. This does not occur in the book. The film received largely positive reviews.[7] The film was remade in 2017, based on the novel and the 1973 film, starring Charlie Hunnam as "Papillon" and Rami Malek as Dega.

See also

  • Rene Belbenoit, Devil's Island convict and author of Dry Guillotine, Fifteen Years Among The Living Dead (1938)
  • Charles Brunier, Devil's Island convict with a butterfly tattoo, who in 2005 claimed to have been the inspiration for Papillon
  • Clément Duval, Devil's Island escapee and memoirist whose story was also said to have inspired Papillon


  • 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)


  1. "Charrière, Henri 1906-1973 []". Retrieved 2016-08-21.
  2. 1 2 James, Erwin (2006-12-04). "Among the ghosts". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2016-08-21.
  3. "Henri Charrière - Papillon". Retrieved 2016-08-21.
  4. "If this is correct; the 'real' Papillon", Rue Rude
  5. "Ex-convict aged 104 claims to be Papillon", The Telegraph
  6. The Wild Coats: The Guyanas. 2015
  7. "Papillon (1973)". Rotten Tomatoes.
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