A memoir. ‘Papillon’ is the nickname of the author / narrator, Charrière, and this book is his account of imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit, and then a series of increasingly desperate and risky escapes.
It has a straightforward, oral style that gives it a palpable urgency and grants its nastier moments (e.g. when our hero throws a pan of boiling water over a prison bully who’s wearing three woollen vests and then witnesses the ensuing damage) a sick potency.
There’s an anti-authoritarianism in it that grows increasingly powerful as the brutalities visited upon Papi build and build. It’s a cycle that no doubt we’ve all witnessed in our own lives; unfairness generates anger, and the anger is punished – injustice heaped upon injustice, which then leads to more anger, etc. There’s a class element to the injustice in Papillon, and a hopelessness at the way the system is stacked. By the time Papi and his cellmates are engaging in violent breakouts, the reader is as convinced as they are that it’s the only way. Due process and basic decency will not work for them.