I was sweetly given a copy of this book by a friend in Asheville who said it changed his life. Henri Charriere captures the true (?) tale of his imprisonment and two escapes from French Guiana. His first escape in 1933 had him sailing with a tiny boat and flimsy sails all the way from French Guiana to Trinidad, then Curacao, then Colombia.

In the first four notebooks, we learn Henri (Papillon, for the butterfly tattoo on his neck)’s crime is murder, which he didn’t commit, and is sentenced to life. He gets ahold of a “plan” (metal cylinder carried in the lower intestine filled with money) and jams it up his butt with thousands of francs. He seems to make friends very easily and always hook up with the right people. For the 1933 escape, he plots with Clousiot and Maturette to distract and club the guards (Maturette gladly seduces a few), then jump into a waiting boat piloted by L’Enfle who dumps them in a secluded spot and tells them to stay put for a few days and good luck if he’s captured. Papillon realizes what a shitty and non-seaworthy boat they’ve purchased, and what luck! they run into the Masked Breton who guides them to the island of lepers where they buy a nicer one.

I was slightly touched by the generosity of the leper colony, everyone jumping in to fund the escapee’s plan with money or food or a discounted boat. But does this really happen? Pap always seems to run into either really good people or really bad people. There are no indifferent people. Outfitted with a decent yet tiny boat, they make it to Trinidad where they can only legally stay for two weeks. They meet (shock!) a ton of awesome people who help them out with whatever they need. But they’re sent on their way with a few extra passengers who they try to dump on the Colombian coast after a brief stay in Curacao (where again they meet with wonderous people who love them even after they were accused of theft when they jangled a purse on a wall filled with coins). The handoff goes badly on the coast, and the boat is smashed up, the men are taken prisoner in Colombia.

But Pap escapes again! He makes another friend, Antonio, who chews cocoa leaves for energy, and they walk all night, hide during day, walk all night. Eventually Pap winds up in the arms of some friendly natives, Indians of Guajiraos in loincloths who welcome him, who immediately mate him with one of their young daughters (age 16). She (Lali) senses that he might not be happy with her, so she thrusts her 12 year old sister into his arms in order to keep him there. At first he rejects this, but old Pap can’t resist a little statutory rape so soon he has two wives and has impregnated the 12 year old. He tells one Indian interpreter about his plan to escape, and the guy suggests that he develop a stammer because people will get bored listening to him and not notice his accent. He also finds out that if the 12 year old has his son, then it will hold a place of honor in the tribe (“if it was a son, of course.”); we also find another woman having a child in the rocks near the beach and carrying it back triumphantly in the air– it must be a son because a daughter would have been scurried back to the village. Oh really. Why are women so devalued when they’re the ones diving for oysters?

*** Three weeks later, picking up this review ***

I’ve finished twelve other books since I wrote the initial part of this, which speaks volumes for how much I was enjoying the book (not much). Finally cranked through the remaining pages last night and it feels like I’ve gone on a cavale of my own (escape from prison). He is captured after the brief sojourn in paradise with the Indians and spends another block of time at the prison, hatching various schemes to get away. Eventually (mein Gott he needs an editor) he floats away on a bag of coconuts with another prisoner whom he later watches get sucked into quick sand as they are about to be free.

My next task is to read Genet’s The Thief’s Journal to see how much of it might have influenced Henri Charriere’s telling of this tale (both involve prisons in French Guiana. My suspicions were roused when reading Patti Smith’s M Train where she discusses Genet.