Translated by Patrick O’Brian.
London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1970.

In stock


Very scarce signed, we can find no examples of this edition signed at auction. Inscribed by the author: “F.G. Kneer / Avec toute ma sympathie un [?]bonjour cordial Papillon 15-5-70”; F.G. Kneer was Friedbert Kneer, a London hotelier.

The first edition in English of Charriére’s famous tale of imprisonment & escape. The book, originally published in French the year before, serves as an account of the fourteen years the author spent at the penal colony on Devil’s Island and other prisons in French Guiana and Colombia, punctuated by his numerous and often remarkable escapes. The book was phenomenally successful, leading to the release of the popular film version starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.

Some doubt has been cast on the authenticity of the story over the years, notably due to similarities with another work, La Guillotine Sèche [Dry Guillotine] (1938), by René Belbenoît, and because the original French publisher Robert Laffont claimed in later years that Charriére had originally presented the work as a novel, but that Laffont himself had insisted they should present it as autobiographical. However, some of the facts have been borne out over time, including that the author was imprisoned in Devil’s Island and at some point did escape, eventually becoming a Venezuelan citizen, successful restaurateur and best-selling author.

The translation here is by the novelist Patrick O’Brian, creator of the ‘Aubrey–Maturin’ series of nautical novels, who was a well-regarded translator of French works into English, and also translated the sequel to Papillon, Banco (1973). Of his translation of Papillon O’Brian himself wrote in the introduction “I have tried to steer between unnecessary grossness and inaccurate insipidity”, illustrating his struggle with the original slang, prison argot and obscenities that peppered the original French edition; the final result however led the TLS to call it “a scrupulous version”.


First edition in English, with full-page autograph inscription from the author, 8vo, map endpapers, usual slight toning to edges of text-block, publisher’s boards, dust-jacket with photographic design by Stephen Abis, slight toning but overall an attractive example.



Stock ID: 98146