PARIS - It was June 11, 1981, when Issei Sagawa, a Japanese student studying literature at the Sorbonne Nouvelle University, invited his friend Renee Hartevelt to dinner in his Parisian apartment.
He shot the 25-year-old Dutch exchange student in the neck with a 22-caliber Long Rifle, and then proceeded to eat her clitoris and cook several parts of her body. The “Japanese cannibal” was born.
French writer Nicole Caligaris was a fellow student at the Sorbonne Nouvelle and knew both the cannibal and his victim. Thirty years later, she has decided to write a book about this strange story.
Her book, “Paradise Between The Thighs,” isn’t an investigation, it’s a meditation: someone she barely knew ate someone else she barely knew. This staggering case is still something of a mystery to her.
To be true, she doesn’t have much to say on this weird case per se. She just goes where here words take her. She analyzes what the crime says about the 1980s, the media, her relationship to her own body, her own sex. It’s a delicate book on savagery, an illustration of how an intelligent mind can do faced with the incomprehensible – nothing, or not much.
NOUVEL OBSERVATEUR: Why wait 30 years to bring up the Issei Sagawa case again?
NICOLE CALIGARIS: It’s quite random, really. The editor François Angelier contacted me for his “Dictionary of the Assassins.” I told him that I couldn’t think of an assassin to write about, but then my partner reminded me that we had once known Issei Sagawa and that it was the right time to write about it. I had letters from him. I wanted there to be a trace of them.
At the time, how did you react when you heard what happened?
I saw in the newspaper. I was walking down the street and I saw the faces of two people I had spent an evening with not long ago. I guess I was flabbergasted. The truth is I don’t really remember how I felt. My reaction was to write to Issei Sagawa and that’s how we started our correspondence.
Why did you write to him? What was your letter about?
I don’t know any more. My guess is I asked him how he was. Today, I tell myself that with these letters, I was hinting at the beginnings of a career in literature. Maybe there was this idea that the story shouldn’t forgotten. But none of this was really conscious. I had the hardest time digging up these letters. I was glad I had blocked it all from my memory. Reading them for the second time was quite moving. Issei Sagawa’s language, his strange French. It’s very beautiful. I remember him guiding me in my discovery of Japanese literature, Kawabata for instance, I had forgotten about their sensitivity.
His letters are extremely naïve; he writes that “Renée was an extremely nice girl. I don’t know what happened at all.” You are publishing them in their entirety. What is their juridical status? Do you have the right to publish them?
He owns them. We tried to reach him, but we couldn’t find him. His Japanese editor never answered. We had a fax number, which never worked. As crazy as it sounds, I couldn’t even find him through social networks. I had prepared a letter. I wanted to see this through. I was nervous about meeting him again – terribly nervous.
You asked him to write for a literature magazine you work for.
I asked him to publish the text of his conference on Kawabata. This is what I can deduce from his response, since I had no memory of asking him this. I guess I was trying to find a way for him to stay alive. But, with hindsight, I can’t ignore what he’s become. The massive media coverage in which he was both actor and plaything.
This media coverage, did you know about it beforehand or did you learn about it while writing this book?
I knew he was free in Japan, that he was “playing” the cannibal on TV shows, cracking jokes about hamburgers out of human meat. But I didn’t pay attention to it until this book. It was too painful. I had been in contact with him, I felt manipulated.
I don’t have an opinion his willingness to show his face in the media. It’s a complex question. We can try to imagine ourselves in his place. What’s going to happen to him? He ruined everything: his relationships, his existence. However can he earn a living? In the end, there’s some kind of obligation. He had a choice, of course, we always have a choice. I know that he played in an erotic movie that I used to own, but never summoned enough courage to watch it. There are stills of it on the Internet, where he’s pretending to cut up a woman with a fork and a knife.
You emphasize your refusal to interpret his actions.
What’s the point? We can’t interpret anything and everything. It doesn’t teach us anything. All I can talk about is what I felt. An interpretation would mean that there was no one else but me. But there is in fact someone in front of me – someone I can’t understand. This incomprehension means the world to me.
When I analyze this act, I have to ignore all the stereotypes. I have to face this stupidity, which you can never get rid of, this tendency to psychological interpretation and moral prejudice. Of course I’m shocked but what's the point of being shocked by cannibalism?
Renee Hartevelt was eaten while you were out enjoying a nice evening with other fellow students. In your book, we sense a certain guilt.
I remember that evening, what was going on during the murder, but maybe that’s not what happened. It’s just what I always thought happened on that night. It’s probably the expression of my guilt. I didn’t see anything. Renee Hartevelt and Issei Sagawa were both foreign students in France. French students don’t really hang out with the foreign students; they prefer to have fun among themselves. I feel guilty for being stupid.
Sagawa was declared criminally irresponsible and freed in 1985. What was your reaction?
Everyone has an opinion on this sort of thing. Justice doesn’t punish. It brings those who have exiled themselves from humanity back to humanity. And we have to hold on to that. Him rotting in a prison cell wouldn’t render Renee Hartevelt’s death any less senseless. It’s painful to see him free, but that’s how things are. That’s how complicated things are.