Patti Smith whispered this book title in my ear in M Train, and I was especially keen on picking it up because of my (completely unfounded) suspicions about Papillon being a book that was cribbed from this. While Genet may have overlapped with Charrière (Papillon) in the prison in French Guiana, or not, but Genet’s book is nothing like Pap’s. Genet’s tale is a swirling mass of poetic musings around the underworld of thievery, prostitution, homosexuality, and betrayal. He himself notes “There is a relationship among [betrayal, theft, and homosexuality]…”
Set in places across Europe in the 1930s and 40s, it’s a miracle that Genet survived the tales he outlines. Soliciting sex from German soldiers, Nazis, police officers, border patrols, thieving from everyone in each country, Genet found community in jail. “Perhaps the oppressively perfect police system of the Central European states is due to the uneasiness created there by political confusion.”
He attributes his predilection for the underworld to his being abandoned to an orphanage at birth. “I already felt it was natural to aggravate this condition by a preference for boys, and this preference by theft, and theft by crime or a complacent attitude in regard to crime. I thus resolutely rejected a world which had rejected me.”
Translated from the French by Bernard Frechtman.
Update: Patti Smith on On Jean Genet’s ‘The Thief’s Journal’ worth a read.