And then the 7th wave freed the butterfly

Wrongly accused makes 13 escape attempts from the world’s most notorious prisons… and succeeds 9 times.

If the entire book were to be compressed into a single sentence, that would be it. But that would also be a cruel injustice to the hundreds of adventures crammed into one remarkable lifetime.

Papillon (‘butterfly’ in French) begins with the cruel and unfair imprisonment of Henri Charriere, wrongly accused of murdering a pimp. He is sentenced to hard labor for life on the Isles of Salvation, a group of three remote and inaccessible islands in French Guiana to which all political and dangerous prisoners are exiled.

Papillon – as Henri’s friends call him because of a butterfly tattoo on his chest – plots and pulls off a daring escape from the infirmary, along with two fellow inmates. Encountering fractured legs, wild jungle, banished lepers and back-stabbing bounty-hunters, Papillon finds himself back in prison with a much harsher sentence slapped on him. Then begins a series of adventures so vividly described and so spectacular to imagine, you can almost smell the rotting prisons and salty sea-breeze.

I will not reveal the entire story here of course. But what I certainly WILL share is this list of the most memorable bits from the book. Let’s see if they spark your interest.

  • (My personal favorite!) Escaped Devil’s Island by jumping from a 100-ft high cliff, chained to a sack of coconuts.
  • Sailed across shark-infested waters on that same sack of coconuts, using his shirt as a sail
  • Made 3 futile, yet daring escape attempts – with a broken leg – in less than a week
  • Solitary confinement for a year, with no contact with humanity whatsoever
  • Fought to stay sane when confined to solitary imprisonment for 8 years after another failed escape
  • Followed a pig’s instincts to navigate across a quicksand swamp

I wish I could write more but I don’t want to ruin the experience for those of you who might pick up Papillon. Don’t worry that I’ve given out the spoilers; almost everything I wrote is revealed in the preface of the book itself.

There has been much debate and controversy over the truth behind Papillon’s story. Maybe it’s a half-fiction borrowed from other inmates’ experiences. Or maybe not. It doesn’t matter to me. I am not into the habit of analyzing every piece of literature to death or looking for subtext with a critic’s magnifying glass.

But I will definitely credit Papillon with making me feel that the miseries of the average human are relatively trivial and that if ‘Papi’ could keep his wits about him, then we can too. It’s probably why this will always remain the book I have read the most number of times (OH, DON’T EVEN ASK!)

Fun Trivia:

  • Papillon was made into an Oscar-nominated movie starring none other than Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman
  • The real Papillon served as the on-location consultant (see video below)
  • The movie doesn’t even depict half the book, so don’t consider it a two-hour substitute (But do watch it though for the superb shots, like the other video below)
  • To this day, no sailor will take you to the Devil’s Island, no matter how much you offer to pay

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