Papillon alive and well in a Paris retirement home

Is Papillon alive and well and living in retirement in the northern Paris suburbs?

The extraordinary claim surfaced after a French newspaper recently reported the 104th birthday of Charles Brunier, a former inmate of the Devil’s Island penal colony, said to be seeing out his days at the Val-de-France old people’s home in Domont, about 20km outside the French capital.

According to staff, the former convict is as tough as old boots and rarely communicates. But when he does, it is often with the same message: that it was he who inspired Henri Charriere to write his 1969 best-seller.

More intriguingly: that many of the adventures that Charriere claims to have lived through were in fact his.

Charriere’s account of his 11 years in the “bagne”—the French word for penal colony—has sold millions of copies around the world and was turned into an Oscar-nominated film in 1973 starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffmann.

But from the start there were doubts about how much of the yarn—the nine escape attempts, the two years in solitary confinement, the adoption by an Indian tribe—was actually true.

Today there is a consensus that though Charriere did indeed spend time as a convict in French Guyana in the 1930s and ‘40s, he could not possibly have lived through all that he laid claim to when he wrote it up 25 years later.

Much of it was invented or told to him by fellow inmates.

“From time to time Monsieur Brunier tells us stories from his life. He certainly served in the ‘bagne’ with Henri Charriere, and knew him quite well.
And he is utterly convinced that Charriere stole the idea for Papillon from him,” said Isabelle Mesureur-Cadenel, the director of his retirement home, in an interview.

“The remarkable thing is that he himself has a tattoo on his left arm—and it is a butterfly,” she said. In the book Papillon won his nickname from a butterfly on his chest.

Brunier’s life up to his deportation already bears similarities with that of Charriere, who was his junior by five years.

Born in 1901 in Paris, he joined the navy at 17 and was given the croix de guerre for gallantry in action in Syria. But back in France he was in trouble with the law. Mystery now surrounds the crime, but in 1923 he was given a life sentence for murder and transported to Guyana.

On Devil’s Island he gave himself the name of Johnny King and on three occasions managed to escape. Once he reached Venezuela by boat and spent several months there before being recaptured. On the last occasion—at the outbreak of World War II—he reached the coast of Mexico where he enrolled as a fighter pilot.

He fought with the Free French in Africa where he was personally decorated by General de Gaulle, and finished the war with the rank of chief warrant officer. But that did not stop him being sent back to the Guyana penal colony, from where—in recognition of his military service—he was finally released in 1948.

“In later years he lived in Domont and all the children knew him because of the stories he used to tell. They all seemed so far-fetched, but they were true,” said Mesureur-Cadenel.

Charriere meanwhile had arrived in Guyana in 1933 having been convicted of murdering a Paris pimp. In Papillon he claims he was framed, and the book is written from the viewpoint of a noble criminal struggling against the system.

Little can be established for certain about Charriere’s time in Devil’s Island, except that in 1944 he finally did escape to Venezuela where he and his wife Rita ran a series of bars and nightclubs.

Fortune came with the publication of Papillon, after which he bankrolled a flop film—The Queen of Diamonds with Claudia Cardinale—moved to Spain, wrote the follow-up Banco, and died of throat cancer in 1973.

Months after Papillon went on sale, two books appeared to debunk the legend. One—based on police leaks—showed that he was almost certainly guilty of the original murder in Paris. In the second—A Butterfly Pinned—Gerard de Villiers travelled to South America and unearthed major contradictions in Charriere’s story.

“Far from being one of the outstanding tough guys in the penal colony, he was a comparatively well-behaved convict, who was contentedly employed for a long time on latrine duty. He never escaped from Devil’s Island, and the heroic confrontation with the commander of the camp never occurred,” according to a 1970 article in the New York Review of Books.

“The majority of the anecdotes he relates did not happen to him at all, but are adaptations of stories he heard about other people.”

One of them—quite plausibly—a convicted murderer called Charles Brunier. - Sapa-AFP