The man with the butterfly tattoo

Real-life adventure or just a rollicking good yarn? Nicholas Laughlin reads between the lines of Papillon, the classic account of an escape

Henri Charrière. Photograph by Joseph Fabry/TimeIle Royale (left) and Ile du Diable – Devil`s Island itself – viewed from Ile St Joseph. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinInside the Salle des Reclusionnaires – the solitary confinement area – on Ile Royale. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe overgrown ruins of the solitary confinement cells on Ile St Joseph. Photograph by Nicholas Laughlin

We chose a blustery morning to cross to the Îles du Salut. The Kourou River was choppy grey as the catamaran eased from the jetty and turned north to face the open Atlantic. Before long the boat was lumbering through ocean swells. At regular intervals the passengers on the front deck were sluiced with sea-spray. Some scurried to the shelter of the cabin, one or two shrieked tentatively.

But a quarter mile from Île Royale, within sight of the massive stone pier, the sun slipped from its cloak of cloud, and the sea around us turned translucent blue. Two white yachts bobbed at anchor in the Baie des Cocotiers. “Royale had a flat coastline, then rose . . . to a plateau. It looked like a Mexican hat with its crown cut off, floating on the sea. And everywhere, very green coconut palms. Small houses with red roofs gave the island an unusual charm, and if you didn’t know what was there besides, you might want to live there the rest of your life.” So did the island appear to me, as it had seven decades ago to the man who became its most famous resident: Henri Charrière – alias Papillon. ?

In September 1968, a parcel from Caracas arrived at the Paris office of the publisher Robert Laffont. The manuscript inside evaded the slush pile to reach the desk of the editor Jean-Pierre Castelnau. He was riveted by the story that unfolded in the clumsily typed pages: a rip-roaring tale of injustice, defiance, and nerve set in the brutal penal colony of French Guiana, complete with murders, knives, and sharks, midnight escapes, pursuits through fetid swamps, and derring-do on the high seas.

Castelnau summoned the unknown author to Paris. A few months later, the book was published by Editions Laffont. It was France’s literary sensation of 1969. President Pompidou told the press it was his holiday reading. It sold a million and a half copies, winning fortune and fame for its 62-year-old author. An English translation came a year later, and soon Hollywood beckoned. The 1973 film version starred Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. By then its author, Henri Charrière, was dead, of lung cancer, in July that same year.  But Papillon was already considered a classic of its kind.

Charrière’s narrative joins an old-fashioned picaresque yarn with thrilling tropical scenery and an unaffected voice, both brash and charming. It opens in 1931, in a Paris courtroom, where a handsome young Charriére – “I was 25,” he writes, “but looked 20” – is on trial for the murder of a pimp. He was framed by the police, he says, the prosecutor is a demon, and there’s no justice in petit bourgeois France for the likes of him: a proud, rakish demimondain. The sentence is life imprisonment and transportation to French Guiana.
Almost his first thought is how to escape. A natural-born prince among thieves, Charrière – nicknamed Papillon, after the splendid butterfly tattoo on his chest – is a fair-minded and fearless tough-talker, handy with a knife, irresistible to women, respected by prisoners and guards alike: all qualities that serve him well on his several cavales (prison slang for escape attempts).

He makes his first break-out within weeks of landing, bashing a prison orderly on the skull and heading to sea in a little boat. He gets as far as Colombia, where a village of friendly Guajira Indians, in noble-savage mode, take him in. A short idyll ensues: the Indians give Papillon his own cottage, two nubile sister brides, and as many oysters and roasted iguanas as he can eat. But a craving for revenge gets the better of him. He decides to return to France and confront the prosecutor who sent him away. Bad idea: captured by the Colombian police, he’s shipped back to French Guiana, and this time the authorities sentence him to the “inescapable” Îles du Salut.

Not even two years in solitary confinement – in a pitch-dark cell crawling with centipedes – breaks his spirit, or his will to freedom. He plots and conspires, even as he befriends the warden, squashes a prison riot, and saves a guard’s small daughter from drowning. Finally he contrives to be transferred from the relative comforts of Royale to infernal Île du Diable – Devil’s Island itself – and there he stages the most daring cavale of all, throwing himself into the sea on a giant sack of coconuts. This time he makes for Venezuela, and a new life as a respectable citizen.
Charrière’s publishers sold his book as autobiography. “As for its authenticity,” Castelnau wrote, “I can vouch for it.” But even as Papillon floated through the bestseller lists, some critics wondered whether Charrière’s powers of invention weren’t more robust than his memory. In 1970, two books appeared debunking Charrière’s account. Georges Ménager’s Quatre Vérités de Papillon reproduced secret police documents purporting to prove that Charrière was indeed guilty of the murder of Roland le Petit. And Gérard de Villiers’s Papillon Épinglé – “The Butterfly Pinned” – quoted witnesses in French Guiana to suggest that some of Charrière’s exploits stretched the truth, others were invented outright, and still others did really happen – to other people. At a press conference, Charrière defended the truth of his story, even if, after 30 years, some of the details had become blurred. “I did not go into that hell with a typewriter,” he said.

Today, scholars prefer to class Papillon as a novel loosely based on Charrière’s life in the bagne and the stories he overheard there. Prison records show there were successful escapees from the Îles du Salut – but Charrière wasn’t one of them. (His real-life cavale was a less glamorous exploit, eluding custody in the town of Cayenne.) Later accounts by other ex-cons described Charrière as a mild-mannered type not much liked by his fellows. Even the tattoo may be borrowed. In 2005 a reporter interviewed a 104-year-old ex-prisoner named Charles Brunier who claimed to be the “real” Papillon – agent of no fewer than three escapes from the Îles du Salut, and sporting a butterfly tattoo on his left arm.
When Papillon was published, the penal colonies of French Guiana had been closed for almost 20 years. The iniquities of the bagne – disease, forced labour, official cruelty – were well known since the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s, when a Jewish French military officer with an exemplary record was unfairly convicted of treason and sentenced to Devil’s Island. In the next five decades, journalists and humanitarians published one exposé after another of the French overseas prison system, and after the Second World War the camps were shut down and the last bagnards repatriated. The three Îles du Salut were abandoned to the coconut trees, until, in the 1980s, an entrepreneur decided they were a potential vacation spot, notwithstanding their unsavoury history.

Landing on Île Royale, it’s hard to imagine this picturesque rock as “that hell.” Ten miles out to sea, its breezy situation was long considered far healthier than the malarial coast – hence the name “Islands of Salvation.” And for the bagnards – those not condemned to solitary confinement – life could be more pleasant, relatively speaking, than in the mainland camps. From the pier you climb past neat cottages of pink brick, set among oleanders, to the island-top plateau and terraced lawns shaded by trees. The former guards’ headquarters is now an inn, with a restaurant celebrated for its fish soup.

To be truthful, I’ve stayed in worse hotels. Our room was a large pink-washed chamber with high roof, barred windows, iron hooks for hammock-slinging, and a simple bathroom behind a metal door. We spent two cheery days rambling over the island, photographing the ruins, and cooling off in a rock pool protected from the sea –  and the sharks – by an artificial barrier.
For a truer sense of the life Charrière lived here, we crossed the narrow strait to Île St Joseph. (Île du Diable, from which the islands derive their popular collective name, is closed to visitors and there is no pier for boats to land, but you can gaze at its black rocks and wind-twisted trees from various points on Royale’s north shore.) Now dank and overgrown, St Joseph was the site of the réclusion cells – solitary confinement. Their heavy stone walls still stand, under moss and creepers. The cells are chokingly narrow, even roofless and open to the sky. In the labyrinth of passageways and chambers, I lost my companions for ten minutes, and had gooseflesh until I caught up with them.

The chills didn’t quite pass until we were back on Royale, sitting round our camp stove and sipping cheap red wine. I wondered what Papillon would make of it all: the yachts, the inn and its famous fish soup, the Îles du Salut as a jolly tourist resort. Shrewd in his swagger, quick to turn circumstances to his advantage, he would not have disapproved of the transformation, I decided. Just as Henri Charrière, bagnard, transformed himself into Papillon, heroic adventurer.