by LEWIS STEDMAN JONES
Papillon by Henri Charriere (Rupert Hart-Davis 16s.)
ENRY CHARRIERE's Papillon has divided France into two hostile camps. The present hopeless moral decline of that country, thunders one government minister, is due to the wearing of mini-skirts and to the reading of Papillon; Francois Mauriae, on the other hand, thinks the book is literary phenomenon.
The anti-Papillon camp denounces it because it believes that much of what Charriere is passing on to the public as fact is fiction. I suspect there is another reason for the attack but whatever the merits of the controversy over two million Frenchmen have bought the book which is now published in Britain.
It seems to me that the dispute over the book's veracity is futile. Numerous works of literature long since admitted to respectable places of immortality had origins far more dubious 'that Papillon. Thomas
Chatterton, Wordsworth's 'marvellous boy' long conned the literary world into believing that the poems he had himself written were the work of a medieval poet he had discovered in the crypt of St. Mary Redcliffe in Bristol.
Daniel Defoe likewise so deceived the public that Robinson Crusoe was a factual document that shortly after its publication 'authentic' relics of Crusoe and Man Friday were on sale on the streets of London. Again, The literary merit of the Ossian poems was not destroyed when Dr. Johnson proved the author to be a contemporary Scots scholar and not the ancient Celtic chieftain the public believed him to be. In such good company, therefore Papillon deserves to be assessed on criteria other than the factual basis of its material. Nor can the critics assail it for triteness of theme. Here again it beers a marked resemblance to Robinson Crusoe. Both works portray the nobility of the human spirit in its refusal to submit to and finally in its triumph over vast natural and social forces that threaten 'to destroy In Papillon these forces are represented by a monstrous penal system that reduced weaker men than Henri Charriere to vegetables. He embroiders this theme with a rich tapestry of incidents which, strain the credulity of the critics as they may, make gripping reading.
Perhaps it is this simple power of story-telling that disturbs the critics and at the same time makes the public. starved of this quality in their reading over-long, take the book to its bosom. Since the novel went Freudian and introspective it doomed itself as a popular art form; Papillon and the public reaction to it might be a reaffirmation of virtues too long absent from creative prose writing.
Throughout the book has a gusty zest for life that is refreshing; and there are marvellous moments when the corroborative detail has a ring of truth not to be found in any literary hoax. For example, the refinement of torture in which warders guarding convicts in solitary confinement are made to wear soft felt slippers so that the hell of utter silence shall be complete is described with compelling force.
Papillon certainly has weaknesses but they do not derive from the material or Charriere's handling of it. I found the character of Papillon himself irritating — he is fussy over the morals of the underworld to the pdinit of priggishness. There is, too, an occasional stilted quality in the style which I suspect derives from the difficulty of translation. But these are minor blemishes in a novel 1 shall remember for a long time.