Henri Charrière, probably better known by his nickname Papillon, was born November 16, 1906 in Saint-Etienne-de-Lugdarès1 in the Ardèche, a region in the South of France. The autobiography he published in 1969 brought him fame and fortune, but his life and his exploits are tainted by doubt and to this day the debate continues on many aspects of his life. Whether or not he wrote Papillon is one of these debates.

Henri Charrière's troubled youth - his mother died when Henri was 11 years old - led him to sign a contract with the French Navy at the age of 17. Apparently Henri was about to be convicted of a violent crime, and this signing provided an escape route. However, the hard and disciplined regime of the Navy brought him close to despair and he resorted to mutilating his own thumb to get out of his contract.

Life in the rural Ardèche quickly bored him out of his wits, however, and so he left for Paris. During his stint with the Navy he had made some acquaintances that were part of the Parisian crime scene. In Paris he sought them out and quickly became part of the Paris underworld, doing his part working out of the Montmartre district. Henri slowly becomes a known crime figure and during this period of stealing, breaking into safes and, as some say, pimping, he acquires his nickname Papillon2.

Then, in 1930, life turns sour for Henri Charrière when he is accused of murdering Roland Legrand. Following a questionable trial, he receives a life sentence of forced labor on October 27, 1931. He is shipped off to French Guyana, where France maintains its own penal colony. He arrives in the colony in November 1933, and there follow a number of escapes on the part of Papillon. He is recaptured a couple of times, but finally manages to escape to Venezuela in 1944, and manages to stay out of the hands of the authorities. He marries a woman named Rita, with whom he owns a number of restaurants and cafés.

Then, in 1967, an earthquake hits the city Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, where Henri owns a night club. His night club doesn't survive and he is left a ruined man. He comes up with the manuscript of Papillon, which he first tries to have published as a romance novel. The publisher thinks it wiser to publish it as an autobiography, but after numerous press conferences with difficult questions and evasive answers, he finally admits that the adventures in Papillon were not just his own, but a collection of other peoples' adventures, too.

Regardless, the book makes Henri a famous and rich man and initially he returns to France. He soon moves to Spain, however, when he has to admit that his autobiography is not as autobiographical as autobiographies normally go. He settles in the city Fuengirola, Andalucia, in Southern Spain. He has a few other moments in the spotlights, when he publishes a sequel to Papillon titled Banco. This raises the skeptics again, who maintain that the two books differ too much in style to have been written by the same author.

At the start of 1973 Henri Charrière falls ill and is soon diagnosed with throat cancer. Before he dies on July 29, 1973, he is consulted in connection with the filming of Papillon, wherein Steve McQueen is to play the leading role.



Right after I wrote the above wu I saw the movie for the first time.
The movie is definitely worth watching, but read the book first.
It's definitely the better of the two.


Sources:
http://gofree.indigo.ie/~james079/pape.html
http://www.sinclairos.freeserve.co.uk/Papillon/PAPILLON2.htm
http://www.jecs.nl/~papillon/

1 My source states 'Saint-Etienne-de Lugares', but there is no place in the Ardèche to be found with that name.
2 Some sources say the nickname was pinned to him earlier, during his stint in the Navy, and was inspired by the tattoo of a butterfly on his chest. Papillon is, of course, the French word for butterfly.

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