Book Review: Papillon by Henri Charrière

If I had to describe this book with one sentence, I would say: This is a horrible tall-tale with a hopeful undertone where the protagonist goes through the worst and always comes out as a winner. It is debatable if Papillon is an autobiography or novelization of real events told mixing fiction and facts and other prisoner’s experiences; either way, it is a gripping story, and Henri Charrière is an excellent storyteller. I was most at home with the prison scenes as they felt more real, but that might be my love for descriptions of how horrendous life can be.

Throughout the book, I kept wondering that this didn’t happen so long time ago. That guillotines and penal colonies were part of the standard judiciary system in the thirties. And the more I thought about it, the less alien the concept felt. I didn’t have to look too far for a similar thinking, maybe not the guillotines, but the idea of secluded islands where you keep those who you don’t want. It has been suggested and used with refugees all over the world. It has been over eighty years since Papillon’s story began from trial at French’s soil and then transported to French Guiana to serve his sentence, and yet the world hasn’t changed. Of course, the prisoner’s rights have improved, (the official doctrine doesn’t allow them to be punished by cutting off their food supply or feeding them only water and bread,) but isolation and shunning out of the society hasn’t gone away.

But back to the book, underneath all the seriousness and injustice the inmates and Papillon had to go through, there is this hope. This idea that there is a future to be have and enjoyed. And this is the allure of the book, the hope for freedom and dignity Papillon isn’t willing to let go. Few of us could survive what he went through and come back as a human who thinks there is something to look forward to and keep the initial part of us intact. Not at least being confined into a solitary cell for two years, not after losing friends, health, freedom, everything, being punished for nothing, and tortured out of a whim. Papillon is an excellent book with a compelling story about cruelties we can inflict our fellow humans in the name of justice and about human ability to survive even the worst.

Thank you for reading, and have a shark free day!

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