Maybe you’ve seen the movie Papillon (1973), starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, or maybe you’ve read the 1968 book by Henri Charrière. You did both? Great, stay around.
For the others, maybe you have no clue what I’m talking about. Maybe you’re on the wrong blog. That’s ok, you can stay too. Everyone is very nice around here. Unless you’re in one of the books I’m reviewing. Especially in this one, The Guillotine Choice by Michael J. Malone & Bashir Saoudi, a better written, more enthralling book than Papillon.
Henri Charrière (portrayed by McQueen in the film) is condemned to hard labour for life, and is sent to the infamous penitentiary (le bagne de Cayenne) on Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana, from which he claimed to have escaped before being caught again and sent to another bagne, in El Dorado.
Although his story was later dismissed as being mostly fiction (official records show he escaped from a smaller, inland prison and was never imprisoned on Devil’s Island) he nonetheless shed light on the atrocious brutality and inhumane conditions under which prisoners were kept in the penal colony. They were barely fed, regularly beaten, and housed in unhealthy quarters. Many inmates were broken as much mentally as physically by the guards, and they surely would have preferred a death sentence to life imprisonment. On Devil’s Island, it is said that the death-rate was very high –over 80% of prisoners died during their first year there; in part due to the extreme conditions, and also due to suicides (although no statistics are available for the latter, one can easily imagine how it would have been a better solution than torture and hunger and all sorts of diseases like yellow fever, leprosy, etc.)
It can be worse
I don’t know if Bashir Saoudi has ever read or watched Papillon but if he did, it probably hit a little too close to home, knowing that his father, Kaci, had gone through an experience even worse. Bashir had often tried to get his father to tell him about that period of his life. All he knew was that Kaci had spent time on Devil’s Island. But Kaci didn’t want to talk about it. Bashir persisted, maybe because he yearned to know his father better, and one day Kaci changed his mind and let the story out.
Bashir asked questions and listened for a few hours. He kept it all on tape. Then, after his father’s death, Bashir decided that he needed to tell the story to the world. After many years of research, trying to fill in the gaps where his father didn’t remember, Bashir asked novelist and poet, Michael J. Malone, to write the book. They spent a good 10 years working on Kaci’s story. In a recent interview, Bashir mentioned that about 90% of it is true facts, and the rest is fiction.
Kaci’s story (or part of it)
In the early 1920s, when Algeria was still a French colony (and would be for another 30 years or so), Kaci was 17 years old and working for a French company. A born and raised Berber, he had become, against all odds, good friends with his French employer who had even welcomed him into his family. But one morning, while Kaci and his boss were walking to work with the company’s weekly payroll, in gold coins, they were robbed and the employer, his good friend, was killed. Two of Kaci’s cousins, who knew the day and time when Kaci and his boss paid the employees, had waited on the road and attacked them. One of the cousins had then decided on the spot to kill the Frenchman.
Because Kaci was with his employer when it happened, he was arrested along with his cousins; the employer’s last words before dying were to the police. He said that Kaci was innocent but that he knew the killer. Kaci was then given a choice: reveal which one of your cousins is the killer and you’ll go free, or spend the rest of your life in prison with both of them. Kaci knew that a death sentence meant that his guilty cousin would die under the guillotine, in a public execution. Kaci refused to let that happen.
All three were sentenced to 25 years on Devil’s Island, plus ‘doublage’, which meant that they’d be prisoners for 50 years (if they survived). It was similar as being condemned to a life sentence. They’d never see their loved ones again, nor would they ever come back to Algeria.
At this point in the book, you already feel as if you’ve read an entire novel; you’ve been through so many emotions that you wonder if you have what it takes to go through what surely awaits Kaci and his cousins (remember that one of them is also innocent of murder, even though he played his part in the robbery). And you remember that they went through hell for real and they deserve to have their stories read, even if it is 90 years later.
While a prisoner, Kaci discovered the real meaning of pain, of hunger, of fear, of fighting for your life and facing death. But he also learned about true friendship, about compassion and redemption. He met love and jealousy, both never too far from the other. Through all of that, so far away from his native land, among thousands of others but a stranger in a very strange land, Kaci discovered everything about himself.
The intensity of the story will pull you into it as gradually as clouds announcing a storm over the sea, and it will hold you tighter before suddenly taking you away from your safe world as fast as raging waves. Michael J. Malone (Blood Tears and A Taste for Malice) wrote this novel with just the right balance of détails and restraint, perfectly pacing the narration with descriptions and dialogues, never going over the top when describing scenes of violence while neither shying away from necessary details about the horrors of living, of suffering and dying, sometimes quietly, but at times painfully.
Bashir Saoudi did a remarkable job of research and his choice of Michael J. Malone to write the book couldn’t have been better. This is a story that is often difficult to read because you keep thinking that it happened for real, not only for Kaci but for many other prisoners on Devil’s Island and elsewhere (still does today, in fact). On the other hand, The Guillotine Choice is also a beautiful homage to courage, resilience, and compassion; it is a vibrant proof that human nature can remain good, even in the heart of the darkest, most evil of places. Kaci Saoudi has had plenty of time to gaze long into the abyss, but he has never let the abyss gaze back into himself.
Rating: 4 thumbprints (see here for rating system)
Visit Michael J. Malone’s blog, say hello on Facebook or tweet on Twitter. And don’t miss his other books Blood Tears and A Taste for Malice, two excellent crime novels that I highly recommend.