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Papillon

This is not a review.

Just some thoughts floating around in my head after reading Papillon, Henri Charriere’s account of his incarceration in the French penal settlement of French Guiana and subsequent escape, indeed, after multiple escape attempts that had failed.

A true story (or at least loosely based on his true story), I read Papillon first when I was in college and enjoyed it very much as an exciting story of adventure and grit. The story of convicts’ life in a harsh prison environment and one man’s desire for freedom is very much in the vein of other stories like Shawshank Redemption or Escape from Alcatraz - friendship, greed, jealousy, repression, despair, hope being the common elements.

In that sense, while an exciting story, it is not entirely new to most readers. Reading it this time around though, I was more impressed by the other themes that emerge from the story, themes of crime, punishment and redemption.

It is true that society needs to protect itself from those who are a danger to it, and prison is the answer that modern society has evolved in response to the question of how to protect people from others collectively deemed a danger. Yet, it is also true that not all crimes merit the same response, and not all criminals pose the same level of danger.

This raises the question of redemption and merit - which criminals merit a second chance and can be redeemed? Do justice systems as they exist today answer this question well? Can prison systems that crush human beings into atomised numbers give individuals this chance of redemption? Society’s need to safeguard itself vis-a-vis the rights of prisoners as human beings (even if dangerous human beings) - what is the point at which they should be balanced? Do human beings collectively judged a danger to society have the right to redeem themselves? Or should the greatest good of the majority mean that society should play safe and lock them up forever, on the grounds that they may be dangerous again? Papillon set me thinking on some of these topics, and I have to say that I don’t have any clear answers.

In some ways it reminded me of Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment although the two novels are not similar at all in their story, characters or construction; only in some of the questions they threw up in my mind.

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