Papillon was my choice for an autobiography for my 2016 reading challenge--and it's a notably interesting one because, while author Henri Charriere insisted its contents were true up until his death, there's some definite room for doubt about large chunks of the book. Similarities to an earlier book along with the sheer incredibility of some of the events Charriere relates definitely seem to lend themselves to the theory that Papillon is, ultimately, an autobiographical framework (Charriere really was sentenced to life in the French penal colony of French Guiana, and he really did escape and eventually become a Venezuelan citizen) with a lot of narrative embellishments, many of which are suspected to be lifted from the aforementioned earlier work, or perhaps from other inmates with whom Charriere became acquainted during his time in the penal colony.
Basically, Papillon is about a guy who gets sentenced to hard labor for life in French Guiana, and who stages a series of escapes of various levels of elaborateness, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, but ultimately never being punished as severely as one would think for his failures. I mean, think about, the guy's escaped from various prisons four or five times, and you're going to let him just wander around the islands? Doubtful. While each incident that Charriere relates is interesting and an adventure in and of itself, all of it added up together, along with the fact that everyone seems to love him--from his guards to the prison wardens to all of the inmates he encounters to a tribe of Native Americans that apparently kill every white person they encounter--really does strain the bounds of incredulity. It does read like a memoir put together years after the events it depicts actually happened; while there is dialogue included, it seems like it's more rough outlines of conversations than actual conversation, which makes sense, but then at the same time other details that probably wouldn't spring to memory seem to proliferate. It's a strange imbalance, and it does make me believe that while some of the parts of it are real, others are embellished, lifted, or straight-up invented.
I did still like the book, though. Honestly, it reads to me like the best parts of The Count of Monte Cristo. The most interesting bits of that book, to me, were when Edmund was imprisoned in the Chateau D'If and when he made his mistake, before the time-jump to his revenge. And actually, Papillon references Monte Cristo, though Charriere is referring to Edmund's desire to get revenge on those who wronged him. Still, it seems like this was a blown-up version of the "imprisonment and escape" sequence, and set in Central and South America rather than France. I can definitely see the influence there, as well as that of the sources mentioned above. At the same time, though, it's somewhat of a pity that Charriere apparently felt the need to mash all of these stories into one book. One would think that the story of an actual escape would be much more riveting for its very truth than a book that's pretty obviously been cobbled together and inflated to make its narrator seem like more of a genius and model person than he really was. But hey, maybe that story wouldn't have sold well in the time that this book was published, though it almost certainly would have been preferred to audiences of today.
I am going to keep this as my autobiography selection for the reading challenge, because it's presented as such and for a long time it was (and by many, still is) accepted to be a true story. But I side with the doubters--as much as one wants this to be true, I just can't bring myself to believe that more than a fragment of it actually is. It's almost as if Jules Verne had taken a day trip on a submarine, written Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea...but then named his main character Jules Verne and insisted that all the events of the book were true, you know? Still, a good adventure story, and I enjoyed reading it even if I did side-eye it a bit.
3.5 stars out of 5.