By Henri Charriere,

Book cover of Papillon

Book description

An immediate sensation upon its publication in 1969, Papillon is a vivid memoir of brutal penal colonies, daring prison breaks and heroic adventure on shark-infested seas.

Condemned for a murder he did not commit, Henri Charriere, nicknamed Papillon, was sent to the penal colony of French Guiana. Forty-two days after…

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Why read it?

6 authors picked Papillon as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

Papillon is about wrongful imprisonment and then escape from a hellhole of disease and brutality. I read it when I was in maximum security prison constantly fearing for my life and wishing things were better.

This story made me realize that I had a lot to be grateful for by comparison. It made me take stock of all the ways my own prison experience was a fortunate one. From this book I learnt to stop feeling sorry for myself by focusing on the ways that things could be worse.

Charriere’s story of his escape from a penal colony in French Guiana in 1931, where he was serving a life sentence for murder, is utterly engrossing. The reader quickly becomes immersed in a fantastical world of survival, betrayal, luck, and daring, as the author – nicknamed ‘Papillon’ as a result of the butterfly tattoo on his chest – describes his exploits in the darkest depths of prison, the untamed jungles of South America and the unforgiving tropical seas. The knowledge that Charriere himself later said that the book was “only 75% true” and an amalgam of his story with those…

From George's list on real, epic journeys of survival.

Papillon is the true story of a man falsely imprisoned for murder. He made several escape attempts over many years and his determination in situations that brought him a lot of punishment and emotional suffering makes for a gripping read. His interactions with other prisoners and people he met on the outside show how he needed to adapt to be safe and to have any chance of living a normal life. This is a real page-turner as it will take you out of your comfort zone and put you in a different world.

This is such a compelling book because you are rooting for the protagonist so much. His situation is so tragic and unfair that you’re in a constant state of anticipation. Will he succeed? Will things get better? He’s facing tremendous odds, and his chances of success are miniscule and everyone loves a good underdog story.

From Bryan's list on with impossible escapes.

This one is fun because, first of all, it's a harrowing story of prison life and escape adventures in the French Caribbean. Not hooked yet? Well, the unreliableness of it isn't necessarily in the book, but in the question of whether the book – as Charriere always maintained – was truthfully autobiographical, or whether he just wove one hell of a tale. Did he really hide his money there? One could throw in Shantaram as another, similar, title to read in this exact genre too.

From Benjamin's list on with devilishly unreliable narrators.

Papillon is a story about survival set in a penal colony in French Guiana. Imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, Papillon refuses to give up and turns his focus to his only option – escape. The writing is only matched by the action-packed story and inspiring feats of endurance and human spirit amidst the horrors of the prison system. I found this book particularly inspiring during the 2020 pandemic as my thoughts often turned to wanting to escape myself. 

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