Papillon, Henri CharriereI blamed myself for being ungrateful to Indara and for not returning her total devotion as I ought. But there was nothing I could do about it: she clung to me so these days that it got on my nerves – she angered me… I was not pleased with myself [for having stolen off without a word to my Indian princess]. She, her father and all her people had done me nothing but good and I was making a poor return. I didn’t try and find reasons to justify my behaviour. It seemed to me that what I was doing wasn’t at all pretty, and I wasn’t in the least proud of myself. I’d left six hundred dollars just lying there on the table: but money doesn’t pay for the kind of things I’d been given.”

This is a hugely long narrative adventure, telling the story of its author, Charriere*, known as Papillon – an underworld type who was convicted of manslaughter and transported to French Guiana for a life sentence of hard labour in the 1930s, when life meant life. The book tells the events of his life in various prisons and penal colonies, his many escape attempts, and his eventual journey to freedom.

(* I’m not sure to what extent this memoir qualifies as “novel” since it is apparently an authentic account, albeit with some names and dates changed to protect the identity of the individuals involved. However, mine is not to reason why, right?)

Charriere is a great raconteur and tells a mean anecdote. His account of prison life is horrifying. His account of life as an underworld insider is enlightening. His escape attempts are always thrilling, usually impressive, and often blackly humorous.

Ultimately, this really isn’t my sort of book – especially at this stage in my life where I really resent that the only positive treatment of female characters (to the limited extent that there are any in a book about men in prison) is pretty much that they are either virtuous wives or virtuous whores, or a bit of both. They often help and sometimes adore the charismatic Papillon, but rarely make any lasting impression or have any lasting influence on him as three-dimensional human beings (rather than as mere virtuous wife/whore puppets). And it is primarily women who bear the brunt of his practical ingratitude.

So there you have it: a great book, for men.

Here is an Amazon link.
I borrowed my book from the library.