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Henri Charrière








  To the Venezuelan people,

  to the humble fishermen in the Gulf of Paria,

  to everybody—the intellectuals, the military

  and all the others—who gave me the chance

  to live again,

  and to Rita, my wife and dearest friend.



  Title Page




  First Notebook

  Second Notebook

  Third Notebook

  Fourth Notebook

  Fifth Notebook

  Sixth Notebook

  Seventh Notebook

  Eighth Notebook

  Ninth Notebook

  Tenth Notebook

  Eleventh Notebook

  Twelfth Notebook

  Thirteenth Notebook





  About the Author

  About the Book

  Read on

  About the Publisher



  THIS BOOK WOULD PROBABLY NEVER have been written if, in July 1967—one year after the earthquake there—a young man of sixty had not read about Albertine Sarrazin in the Caracas newspapers. This small black diamond of a woman who had been all sparkle, laughter and courage, had just died. She was known all over the world for three books she had written in just over a year, two of them about her cavales and her life in prison.

  The man’s name was Henri Charrière and he had come a long way. From the bagne in Cayenne, to be precise, where he’d been sent in 1933. He had lived outside the law, to be sure, but he had been sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he hadn’t committed.

  Henri Charrière—called Papillon in the underworld—was born to a family of teachers in Ardèche in 1906. French by birth, he is now Venezuelan. For the people of Venezuela chose to be impressed by his manner and his word rather than by his criminal record, and judged that the thirteen years he had spent struggling to escape from the horrors of the bagne were more eloquent of his future than of his past.

  In July 1967, Charrière went to the French bookshop in Caracas and bought L’Astragale. Until then it had never occurred to him to write a line about his own adventures. He was a man of action who loved life. He had great warmth, a sharp eye and the rich and somewhat gravelly voice of a man from the Midi. You can listen to him for hours because he tells stories like—well, like all the great storytellers. Thus the miracle happened: following the example of Albertine Sarrazin, with no contacts and free of any literary ambition (in his letter to me he said, “Here are my adventures: have a professional write them up”), he wrote the way you tell a story. You see him, you feel him, you live his life, and if it’s your bad luck to have to stop at the bottom of a page just when he’s telling you that he’s about to go to the toilets (a place that has a multiple and important function in the bagne), you find yourself forced to turn the page because it’s no longer Charrière who is going there, but you yourself.

  Three days after he had finished reading L’Astragale, he wrote at: one sitting the first two sections in a student’s spiral notebook. He stopped long enough to get some advice about this new adventure—probably more astonishing to him than all the others that had come before; then at the start of 1968 launched into the rest. In two months he had finished all thirteen notebooks.

  As with Albertine, his manuscript arrived by mail, in September. Charrière was in Paris three weeks later. I had published Albertine with Jean-Jacques Pauvert, and that is why Charrière entrusted his book to me.

  The book was written in the white heat of recollection, then typed by enthusiastic amateurs not too familiar with French, but I altered virtually nothing. I corrected the punctuation here and there, amended a few Spanishisms that were too obscure, and corrected some confusions of meaning and an occasional inversion that stemmed from the fact that the everyday language of Caracas comprises three or four dialects that can only be learned by ear.

  As for its authenticity, I can vouch for it. Obviously, after thirty years, some of the details had become blurred and modified by memory. As for the background facts, you need only read Professor Devèze’s book entitled Cayenne (Juilliard’s Collected Archives, 1965) to be convinced that Charrière did not exaggerate either the way of life in the bagne or its horror. Quite the opposite.

  As a matter of principle, we changed the names of all the bagnards, guards and wardens in the penal colonies. The purpose of the book was not to attack individuals but to describe particular types in a particular society. The same holds true for dates: some are precise, others approximate. That seemed enough. It was not Charrière’s intention to write a history but to tell a story as he had lived it, to the full, with no holds barred and with complete faith in himself. The result is the extraordinary epic of a man who would not accept the disparity between society’s understandable need to protect itself from its criminals, and a system of repression unworthy of a civilized nation.*






  IT WAS A KNOCKOUT BLOW—a punch so overwhelming that I didn’t get back on my feet for fourteen years. And to deliver a blow like that, they went to a lot of trouble.

  It was the twenty-sixth of October, 1931. At eight o’clock in the morning they let me out of the cell I’d been occupying in the Conciergerie for a year. I was freshly shaved and carefully dressed. My suit was from a good tailor and gave me an air of elegance. A white shirt and pale-blue bow tie added the final touches.

  I was twenty-five but looked twenty. The police were a little awed by my gentlemanly appearance and treated me with courtesy. They had even taken off my handcuffs. All six of us, the five policemen and I, were seated on two benches in a bare anteroom of the Palais de Justice de la Seine in Paris. The doors facing us led to the courtroom. Outside the weather was gray.

  I was about to be tried for murder. My lawyer, Raymond Hubert, came over to greet me. “They have no real proof,” he said. “I’m confident we’ll be acquitted.” I smiled at that we. He wasn’t the defendant. I was. And if anybody went to jail, it wouldn’t be him.

  A guard appeared and motioned us in. The double doors swung wide and, flanked by four policemen and a sergeant, I entered the enormous room. To soften me up for the blow, everything was blood red: the rugs, the draperies over the big windows, even the robes of the judges who would soon sit in judgment over me.

  “Gentlemen, the court!”

  From a door on the right six men filed in, one after the other: the President, then the five magistrates, their caps on their heads. The President stopped in front of the middle chair, the magistrates took their places on either side.

  An impressive silence filled the room. Everyone remained standing, myself included. Then the Bench sat down and the rest of us followed suit.

  The President was a chubby man with pink cheeks and a cold eye. His name was Bevin. He looked at me without a trace of emotion. Later on, he would conduct the proceedings with strict impartiality, and his attitude would lead everyone to understand that, as a career judge, he wasn’t entirely convinced of the sincerity of either the witnesses or the police. No, he would take no responsibility for the blow; he would only announce the verdict.

  The prosecutor was Magistrate Pradel. He had the grim reputation of being the “number one” supplier to the guillotine
and to the domestic and colonial prisons as well.

  Pradel was the personification of public vengeance: the official accuser, without a shred of humanity. He represented law and justice, and he would do everything in his power to bend them to his will. His vulture’s eyes gazed intently down at me—down because he sat above me, and down also because of his great height. He was at least six foot three—and he carried it with arrogance. He kept on his red cloak but placed his cap in front of him and braced himself with hands as big as paddles. A gold band indicated he was married, and on his little finger he wore a ring made from a highly polished horseshoe nail.

  Leaning forward a little, the better to dominate me, he seemed to be saying, “Look, my fun-loving friend, if you think you can get away from me, you’re much mistaken. You don’t know it, but my hands are really talons and they’re about to tear you to pieces. And if I’m feared by the lawyers, it’s because I never allow my prey to escape.

  “It’s none of my business whether you’re guilty or innocent; my job is to use everything that’s available against you: your bohemian life in Montmartre, the testimony extorted from the witnesses by the police, the testimony of the police themselves. With the disgusting swill the investigator has collected, I must make you seem so repulsive that the jury will cast you out of the society of men.”

  Was I dreaming or was he really speaking to me? Either way I was deeply impressed by this “devourer of men.”

  “Don’t try to resist, prisoner. Above all, don’t try to defend yourself. I’m going to send you down the road of the condemned anyway. And I trust you have no faith in the jury. Have no illusions in that quarter. Those twelve know nothing of life.

  “Look at them, there in front of you. Can you see them clearly, those dozen cheeseheads brought to Paris from some distant village? They’re only petits bourgeois, some retired, others small businessmen. Not worth talking about. You can’t expect them to understand your twenty-five years and the life you’ve led in Montmartre. To them, Pigalle and the Place Blanche are hell itself, and anybody who stays up half the night is an enemy of society. They like to serve on this jury, are extremely proud of it, in fact. Moreover, I can assure you, they’re all acutely aware of their own mean little lives.

  “And here you are, young and handsome. Surely you realize I’m going to hold nothing back when I describe you as a Don Juan of Montmartre? I’ll make them your enemies straight off. You’re too well dressed. You should have worn more humble garments. Ah, that was a major tactical error. Don’t you see they envy you your clothes? They buy theirs at Samaritaine. Never have they gone to a tailor, even in their dreams.”

  It was now ten o’clock, and we were ready to start. Before me were six magistrates, one of whom was an aggressive attorney who was going to use all his Machiavellian power and intelligence to convince these twelve shopkeepers that I was guilty, and that the only proper sentence was prison or the guillotine.

  I was going to be judged for the murder of a pimp and stool pigeon who operated in Montmartre. There was no proof, but the cops—they got a promotion each time they brought in a lawbreaker—were going to insist I was guilty. For lack of proof, they would say they had “confidential” information that put it beyond the shadow of a doubt. They had primed a witness—a walking; tape recorder at Police Headquarters by the name of Polein—and he would be the most effective element in the prosecution. Since I maintained that I didn’t know him, in due course the President would say to me with a fine show of impartiality: “You say this witness lies. All right. But why should he lie?”

  “Your Honor, if I’ve been staying awake nights since my arrest, it wasn’t because I was sorry I killed Roland le Petit—I didn’t kill him. It was because I kept trying to figure out this witness’s motive, why he was determined to harm me as much as possible, and why, each time the prosecution threatened to collapse, he found something new to prop it up with. I’ve reached the conclusion, your Honor, that the police caught him committing a crime and made a deal with him: ‘We’ll look the other way if you testify against Papillon.’”

  I didn’t know then how close to the truth I was. Polein was presented to the court as an honest man with a clean record; a few years later he was arrested and found guilty for trafficking in cocaine.

  Hubert tried to defend me, but he couldn’t compete with the prosecutor. Only one witness, Bouffray, boiling with indignation, gave him even a few moments’ trouble. Pradel’s cleverness won the duel. As if that weren’t enough, he flattered the jury and they swelled with pride at being treated as collaborators and equals by this impressive character.

  By eleven that night the game was over. Check and mate. I, who was innocent, was found guilty.

  French society in the person of Prosecutor Pradel had succeeded in eliminating for life a young man of twenty-five. And no reduced sentences, if you please! This heaping platter was served to me with the toneless voice of President Bevin.

  “Will the prisoner please stand.”

  I stood. The room was silent, everyone held his breath, my heart beat a little faster. The jury looked at me or bowed their heads; they seemed ashamed.

  “The jury having answered ‘Yes’ to all the questions except one—that of premeditation—you are condemned to hard labor for life. Have you anything to say?”

  I didn’t move; I just clutched the railing of the prisoner’s box a little harder. “Your Honor, yes, I want to say I am truly innocent, that I’m a victim of a police frame-up.”

  A murmur rose from a group of specially invited ladies sitting behind the Bench.

  Without raising my voice, I said to them, “Silence, you women in pearls who come here to indulge your sick emotions. The farce is played out. A murder has been solved by your police and your justice; you should be content.”

  “Will a guard please remove the prisoner,” said the President.

  Before I was led away, I heard a voice cry out, “Don’t worry, baby, I’ll follow you there.” It was my good and true Nénette shouting her love. And those of my underworld friends who were in the courtroom applauded. They knew the truth about this murder and this was their way of showing they were proud of me for not squealing.

  We went back to the small room where we had waited before the trial. There the police handcuffed me, and then I was chained to one of them, my right wrist to his left. No one spoke. I asked for a cigarette. The guard gave me one and lit it. Each time I lifted it to my mouth or took it away, the policeman had to raise or lower his arm to follow my motions. I finished about three-quarters of the cigarette. Still not a word. Finally I looked at the guard and said, “Let’s go.”

  I went down the stairs escorted by a dozen policemen and came out into the inner courtyard of the Palais. The paddy wagon was waiting for us. We all found places on the benches. The sergeant said: “Conciergerie.”


  When we arrived at Marie Antoinette’s last château, the police turned me over to the head warden, who signed a paper. They left without a word, but just before leaving—surprise—the sergeant shook my handcuffed hand.

  The head warden asked me, “What’d they give you?”


  “I can’t believe it.” But he took another look at the police and saw it was so. Then this fifty-year-old jailer who had seen everything and knew my own case very well had these kind words for me:

  “Those bastards! They must be crazy!”

  Gently he removed my handcuffs and accompanied me to the padded cell specially designed for those condemned to death, madmen, the very dangerous and those sentenced to hard labor.

  “Chin up, Papillon,” he said as he shut the door. “They’ll be sending you your things and the same food you had in the other cell. Chin up!”

  “Thanks, chief. Believe me, my chin is up and I hope they choke on their ‘for life.’”

  A few minutes later I heard a scratching on my door. “What is it?”

  A voice answered, “Nothing. It’s
only me. I’m hanging up a sign.”

  “Why? What does it say?”

  “‘Hard labor for life.’ Watch closely.”

  They really are crazy, I thought. Do they actually think the blow that just hit me could make me want to commit suicide? My chin’s up and I’m going to keep it that way. I’m going to fight them all. Starting tomorrow, I go into action.

  As I was drinking my coffee the next morning, I asked myself, Should I appeal? Would I have better luck in another court? And how much time would I lose doing it? One year, maybe eighteen months … and what for? To get twenty years instead of life?

  Since I had decided to escape at all cost, the number of years didn’t matter. I recalled the question another convict had addressed to the presiding judge: “Your Honor, how long does hard labor for life last in France?”

  I paced back and forth in my cell. I had sent a consoling wire to my wife and another to my sister, who, alone against the world, had tried to defend her brother.

  It was over. The curtain was down. My people would suffer more than I, and my poor father far away in the provinces would have a hard time carrying this heavy cross.

  With a start I came to my senses. You’re innocent, sure, but who believes you? I asked myself. Stop going around claiming your innocence; they’ll just laugh at you. Getting life for a pimp, and on top of that saying it was somebody else who did it—that’s too thick. Better keep your trap shut.

  So much for that. The first thing to do was to make contact with another con who wanted to break out.

  I thought of a man from Marseilles called Dega. I’d probably see him at the barber’s. He went every day for a shave. I asked to go too. When I arrived, there he was with his nose to the wall. I noticed him just as he was surreptitiously letting another man go ahead of him so that he would have longer to wait his turn. I took a place directly next to him, forcing another man to step aside. I spoke very fast, under my breath.