'Papillon': Thug Life In French Guiana

We don’t usually tell you that reading a particular “Classic Trash” selection is mandatory, so let’s take it slowly: “youuuuu mussssttttt reaaddddd thissss boookkkkk.” Whew. Okay! Now we can talk about it.

Papillon is my jam. Papillon is the best. Papillon is the most fun. Papillon is the shit. Do you ever do that thing in a new relationship where you assign reading? NO, THE WORST, I KNOW, but you show up with a plastic bag containing four paperbacks and say: “You are not going to understand why I am this horrible, aggravating way unless you do the reading”? Does anyone else do that?

Well, I do that, and Papillon is one of those four books. Probably the least arduous of the four, though none of them is, like, the collected Will and Ariel Durant.

Papillon is the single greatest adventure story ever. It begins: “It was a knockout blow — a punch so overwhelming that I didn’t get back on my feet for fourteen years. And to deliver a blow like that, they went to a lot of trouble.” Right? Right.

Although it’s a memoir, Papillon is not necessarily all that true. (Charrière said it was 75% true, which is probably less true than Wikipedia and more true than the work of JT Leroy.) If you want to say it’s less than 75% true, I can’t hear it. Don’t want to hear it. Don’t much care to hear it. Will mildly resent you for it.

Here’s the deal: there was this guy, Henri Charrière, who was born in France in 1906. We are sure that part is true, because public record. He was kind of a thug. We’re pretty sure that part is true, because no one has been all “oh, my buddy, Henri! We were Eagle Scouts together, and he always stood in the gutter to prevent ladies’ dresses from getting splashed.” Then he killed a pimp. Well, he was convicted of killing a pimp. He said it was a frame-up. But, you know, people do say that, don’t they?

Then he was given a life sentence, plus ten years of hard labor, which was pretty legit hard labor, because French Guiana probably made Shawshank seem like [insert fluffy bunny thing here], and he was there for a long, long time and tried to escape a bunch, and then did, and had crazy mad sex with a bunch of lovely ladies in the jungle (they were his wives and they were sisters, and they were total nymphos), and then left for no good reason and was recaptured and then got sent to Devil’s Island (the French say he did not get sent to Devil’s Island), and then he successfully escaped from Devil’s Island (the French say it’s super-easy to do that when you were never actually there), and then made it to Venezuela and spent the rest of his life smoking and drinking and gambling and screwing around and then wrote Papillon and then died.

(Those things may have happened to this guy instead, but let’s not be nitpicky and childish.)

What will you get out of this book? For starters, a pretty decent grasp of French prison slang from the 1930s (“cavale” is escape! “camelote” is junk! “mec” is buddy! “plan” is a metal cylinder containing money or valuables that you shove up your butt to avoid theft!) It’s also the essence of entertaining. It is diverting! You could totally take it to prison with you, or Cabo, or your family’s house for Christmas.

It may also lead to a lifelong obsession with being ready to get out of Dodge. “Please take a moment to locate the nearest exit”? Bish, please. I’ve already figured out who the toughest guy in the room is and am ready to garrote him with my headphones to establish my dominance. Can you make a raft? Use a compass correctly? Field-dress a deer? Can you or can you not tell if someone is in the dry or wet state of leprosy and interact with them accordingly?

That last part is no longer a much-needed skill and Charriere’s advice not accurate ever in human medical history, for the record.

I’m having a moment now where I’m realizing that my family really read an inappropriate number of gory prison-themed books together. I mean, we were reading Papillon around the campfire when I was six, and then there was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the best parts of The Handmaid’s Tale, Life and Death in Shanghai, and then there was my eighth-grade book report on The Gulag Archipelago (sorry, Mr. Proderick).

Hmm. Meh, if you’re self-aware you probably don’t need that much therapy, right?

Read Papillon.


1. Wait, has anyone else even read it?

2. I have never watched the Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman movie, partly because Dega, Hoffman’s character, is in the book for about five minutes and I resent making this totally-accurate-book into a buddy picture for no good reason.

3. There is no prisoner sex, so if you are thinking about picking it up for some Beecher/Keller-esque romance, do not bother. Some of the guys jerk off a lot, and there’s the aforementioned jungle sex interlude, but this is basically the least homoerotic prison memoir ever written.

4. No, I know, that bummed me out too.

5. Would you insert anything into your “plan” apart from money? Letters from loved ones? Folding umbrellas?

6. What would be your formal or informal assigned reading for a new partner?

7. What should Wills and Kate name their baby?

8. Papillon, right?

And next time, we will be reading The Twilight series — yes, all four books!

Previously in Classic Trash: ‘Atlas Shrugged’: Who Is John Galt’s Chiropractor

Nicole Cliffe is the books editor of The Hairpin and the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews.