The French Memoir That Convinced Me It Was Okay to Pee on an Angry Bull
Common sense says not to urinate on large animals, but I wasn’t listening to common sense—I was listening to Henri Charriere
Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What’s a book that almost killed you?
Somehow, Henri Charriere’s memoir Papillon convinced me that it would be a good idea to pee on an angry bull’s nose.
The bull didn’t appreciate it; he knocked me off a fence post, across a deep ditch and onto a gravel road. I don’t think it would have helped if I’d told him that a work of literature made me do it.
Papillon, released in 1970, deals with the author’s 1931 murder conviction and nine subsequent attempts to escape from French colonial prisons. There have been two really popular movie adaptations. The first, featuring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, appeared soon after the book’s English translation and a second was just released in 2017 with Charlie Hunnam and Rami Malek. I became interested in the story after reading a cartoon satire of the McQueen movie in Mad Magazine.
Charriere’s book is a little like Stephen King’s Shawshank Redemption in that both main characters are wrongfully convicted yet remain philosophical about their brutal punishments. The climactic prison break in each is linked to a calm acceptance of their own anti-social character traits.
The French word Papillon means “butterfly” and refers to a large tattoo the narrator has on his chest. In fact, others always refer to him as “Papi” rather than Henri and his character is completely defined by a stubborn desire for freedom (and eventual rebirth — symbolism! — as a responsible citizen.)
Contemporary reviews praised the main character’s spiritual strength, but as a young reader I didn’t care about that. I was entranced by Papi’s physical survival, and adopted the book as an ersatz Boy Scout Manual full of practical advice that could be applied in life-crises that Baden Powell was unlikely to have imagined.
For example, one of the convicts, Julot, avoids transport to the horrible island prison compounds of French Guiana by injuring himself so he will be confined to an infirmary on the mainland. He deeply slashes his knee then pretend-stumbles down the ship’s gangplank. He is happily stretchered away, and later drags a urine-soaked hair through the cut so it will go bad and prolong his stay at the hospital. The anecdote contained just the right amount of grotesque detail to convince me it was true: the hair had to be “dragged” through the wound to ensure a deep-seated infection, you couldn’t just splash warm pee all over the surface of the joint. I was firmly convinced that if ever I found myself in a similar situation I would be well-advised to follow Julot’s recipe exactly.
Similarly, if you are escaping from Devil’s Island on a raft constructed from bags of coconuts, you have to chart the pattern of swells and wait for the seventh wave to carry you safely past the breakers and out to sea. Jumping into the surf too early will just result in being washed back against the rocks. If you are hiding out in the jungle, trying to set the broken leg of one of your fellow escapees, you must pull on his foot until he feels the bones are in the correct place, then apply sticks for splints; you can’t just immediately wrap the injury. If you secrete two metal “chargers” full of money in your rectum, they will always come out deepest first, the opposite order that you might reasonably expect. In a barren cell, you can duplicate the hallucinatory effects of drugs by laying a blanket across your mouth inducing a mild form of oxygen deprivation.
Those little factoids seemed like gold nuggets in the stream bed of the main narrative. The odd, parenthetical inclusions were proof that the memoir was true, because who could make that up? Who would even try?
In retrospect, however, all of the eccentric details in Papillon that I found so convincing could just as easily be interpreted as suspicious embellishments. Julot, in particular, should have been able to count on the filthiness of his environment to infect his knee; artificially introducing germs into the cut with a pee-soaked hair was an unnecessary flirtation with death or clumsy amputation.
At first reading, however, I was simply happy to glean so much practical knowledge.
The book also subtly encouraged a cavalier attitude towards one’s own physical well-being that I found strangely appealing. Characters were knocked unconscious by guards without suffering permanent head injuries; they endured years of malnourishment without losing teeth, and wandered through jungles without becoming malarial. Immediately after each failed escape attempt, Papillon shrugged off his additional punishment and started planning the next “cavale.” It wasn’t his unbroken spirit that impressed me, it was his unbroken body.
Papillon reinforces the young-person myth of indestructibility. The philosophy is knitted deeply into every page of the story, but for some reason the incident I chose to mimic was Papillon’s interaction with Brutus the bull.
After several escapes and recaptures, Papillon is transported to a compound on Royale Island. It’s part of the Iles de Salut group that includes Devil’s Island, which was the absolute last stop for incorrigible prisoners. On Royale, the inmates live in barracks rather than conventional barred cells and are allowed work details to break the monotony of incarceration and to contribute to their upkeep. One of Papillon’s jobs is to tend a bull named Brutus, and to get the stubborn animal to haul a thousand-gallon barrel of water up a hill to sluice out the toilets. The animal, he writes, “weighed over four thousand pounds and was a killer.” Papillon has no experience as a herdsman, but he is given the hazardous assignment anyway, and there is no mention of training or even helpful advice. But Papillon forges a successful working relationship with Brutus nevertheless.
It’s still surprising to me that all of Charriere’s bizarre tales of murder, cannibalism and betrayal couldn’t compete for memory space with one off-hand comment about this bull: “I made friends with Brutus at once by pissing on his muzzle: he adored lapping the taste of salt.” I unreservedly accepted the comment as truth. Superficially, it made sense, because I’d already heard about moose and deer being attracted to mineral licks, and even sucking road salt off the margins of highways. And Papillon doesn’t treat the incident like a new discovery; he immediately urinates in the animal’s face with a great deal of confidence, as if the technique is common knowledge. Besides, the incident was inconsequential to the plot of the story and I couldn’t imagine the author lying without an obvious purpose. Thus, I promptly incorporated it into my otherwise meager knowledge about bulls, and was given no reason to doubt it, until the weekend when I attended a friend’s wedding on Vancouver Island.
A group of us was staying for four days on a farm owned by the bride’s parents. It was a beautiful area and invited sight-seeing, so on several occasions I walked down a road that ended with a spectacular view of the ocean. An enormous bull was in a fenced field along this route and the animal followed my progress when I walked by, like a territorial farm dog bounding from one corner of its pasture to the other, snorting and pawing, charging and stopping. I’d never seen a domestic animal like this before. For one thing, he still had his horns, and they were shockingly broad and un-blunted. Secondly, the bull had rippling muscles, as if he had been bench-pressing tractor axles in the exercise yard of a prison farm, not grazing for fourteen hours a day and occasionally inseminating a neighbor’s cow.
The fence containing the beast was solidly built, but really, it was just wire stretched between posts. If the bull really wanted to, he could have pulled the entire contrivance from the ground with a shake of his head. He could have used his horns as needles and knitted a dump truck with the metal threads.
This was a scary animal.
To be honest, I was a little drunk when I experienced the sudden Papillon flashback. But late one night, after a wedding rehearsal party, I decided it would be appropriate to befriend the enormous beast just as Papi had won Brutus over, by peeing on its nose. I wasn’t so inebriated that I considered climbing into the field, but no special effort was necessary to get close to the bull. I just had to stand near the fence and he would appear, howling and vibrating with anger on the other side.
Unfortunately, the animal was as big as a locomotive and there was no chance of hitting my target from ground level. So, I climbed up the network of posts at the very corner of the field. Here, two timbers had been driven into the ground at sharp angles to brace two other uprights and provide solid anchors for the winch that must have mechanically tightened the wire strands.
It was, therefore, a very stable platform.
I levered my drunken body up the fence, using the wires as ladder rungs. I didn’t feel particularly threatened at this point, because the animal’s enormous head-plus-horns simply couldn’t fit into the corner. It doesn’t really make sense, but the beast treated the shiny metal filaments with a lot more respect than they deserved.
I planted my feet on top of the posts, shoulder width apart, and unzipped. The bull was quivering with rage, five or six feet away, with his shoulders at the level of my feet, and his upper lip curled malevolently. I paused for a moment then felt that weird sensation of unleashing a stream of watery beer with uniform mechanical pressure, as if my urinary tract were made of industrial strength valves and conduit rather than scraps of viscera.
The liquid arced through the moonlight and spattered against the flat oblong expanse of bull-face between eyes and nostrils. It produced the loud, hollow noise of water from a garden hose lashing against a metal garage door.
I sort of expected the bull to tilt his head or extend his tongue, to give some signal that he was savoring the saltiness and confirm the truth of the anecdote in Papillon.
The bull paused, but gave no indication that he was enjoying the cascade. He may have been simply stunned by my foolishness. It was one of those situations where time is oddly distorted, but I imagined a fairly long liquid encounter.
Then the bull charged my fence corner.
His horns raked through the wires as if they were spider webs and his enormous head thumped the timbers right underneath my feet. The impact was stunning and I was thrown backwards a surprising distance, hitting gravel on the other side of a deep ditch. I don’t remember zipping up, or peeing all over myself, but that may be selective.
I do remember being happy that I hadn’t broken any bones, but tremendously disappointed that the book had misled me. For years, I had carried that false scrap of knowledge within me like a time bomb waiting to be detonated by circumstance.
I was pretty young when I read Papillon, but I knew, deep down, the story shouldn’t be taken literally. Very early in the book, the main character’s impression of Pradel, the prosecutor, is delivered through an imaginary speech: “My hands may not look like talons, but there are claws in my heart that are going to rip you to pieces.” Many of Papillon’s descriptive passages are positively delusional.
But that’s the interesting intersection between literature and young idiots. I let the book influence me, even as I understood that it was untrustworthy.
I now better understand the strong incentive to invent outlandish details like pissing on a bull’s nose and liberally salting them into the narrative. Despite book reviewer’s’ assertions that Papillon’s spirit is indomitable, he often appears disaffected and emotionally flat. Henri Charriere must have sensed it, and overcompensated with a series of those reckless-heroic encounters.
In his first prison escape, Papillon buys a boat from the lepers of Pigeon Island. He meets the leaders of the colony to ask for help and agrees to the three-thousand-franc price tag for a sixteen-foot sloop capable of ocean travel. While they talk, Papillon is given a metal bowl to drink from and happens to notice a finger stuck to it. One of the leaders of the leper colony, La Puce, had lost the digit while passing the container to his visitor.
The threat of infection was terrifying at the time, but Papillon is nonplussed as the body fragment is casually tossed onto the fire. La Puce then announces that he has “dry” leprosy and isn’t contagious, despite his frightening appearance.
Other characters are impressed by Papillon’s calmness. But, to me, his non-response borders on insanity: wouldn’t an emotionally normal person have some reaction to an unexpected severed finger, no matter how non-communicable it was? Offhand comments like the one about peeing on Brutus’s nose are meant to distract attention from that zombie-flatness.
Papillon resonated with me when I was young because of the cartoonish indestructability of the main character: a pretty standard, fragile-male response. Over time, I became fascinated by Papi’s sociopathic disconnect from others — which the publishers mislabeled a triumph of the human spirit.
But I suspect the book’s amazing world-wide popularity is related to the main character’s brand of stoicism. Papi is able to act without agonizing about his choices, and that’s pretty rare in the modern world. He can drink from a cup handed to him by a leper, stab a snitch, or abandon his Columbian wife in the jungle, as if it’s no big deal. Readers, who might struggle with choices on a breakfast menu, can fantasize about a life unburdened with recrimination.
I’ve always had a grudging respect for that species of tough guy — at least until my attempt to experience a bit of their false freedom led me to pee on a bull.
Getting knocked off a fence, however, provided a philosophical adjustment, a reminder that Papillon’s take on the world, while interesting, ultimately isn’t right.