Pantheon Books, 2014. 232 pages
“The following work of fiction is partially based on fact.”
Over the course of several months, eight people vanish from their homes in the same Japanese town, a single playing card found on each door. Known as the “Narito Disappearances,” the crime has authorities baffled—until a confession appears on the police’s doorstep, signed by Oda Sotatsu, a thread salesman. Sotatsu is arrested, jailed, and interrogated—but he refuses to speak. Even as his parents, brother, and sister come to visit him, even as his execution looms, and even as a young woman named Jito Joo enters his cell, he maintains his vow of silence. Our narrator, a journalist named Jesse Ball, is grappling with mysteries of his own when he becomes fascinated by the case. Why did Sotatsu confess? Why won’t he speak? Who is Jito Joo? As Ball interviews Sotatsu’s family, friends, and jailers, he uncovers a complex story of heartbreak, deceit, honor, and chance.–publisher’s comments
Errol Morris brought more than justice to the wrongly accused when he brought The Thin Blue Line (1988) to the screen. He demonstrated how fiction lies within the justice system and how reality reveals itself in the imaginations of human perception. Both institutions and human beings can be corrupted; the question is whether doubt can lead to a liberating or confining truth. I thought of Errol Morris as I sank into Silence Once Begun, Jesse Ball’s latest novel.
“One has the impression one can know life, actual life, from its simulacrums by the fact that actual life constantly deceives and reveals, and is consistent in doing so” (4).
Jesse Ball, self-proclaimed professor of “lucid dreaming and lying,” exercises his particular gifts with the latter. We have a want to forget that as a gifted storyteller, he is a practiced liar. The heartbreak of increasing solitude and silence experienced in the narrator’s own life is raw enough to cite the provenance of a genuine artifact. “The following work of fiction is partially based on fact,” but what in the work is partial, or impartial? Silence Once Begun invites suspicion. What becomes awkward for the reader is when the suspicion is found directed not toward Ball or a character, but inwardly. Readers who favor romance and/or political activism will find themselves the easiest targets, among other professional prevaricators.
That smooth teller of tales that drew his reader in a single sitting through door after door and haunted them long after the curfew ended, confines the whimsy of his silvery tongue to his own “prefatory material” and Jito Joo. Joo takes on the silkiness of Milton’s Satan and I remain unconvinced that Kakuzo is able to vindicate her. Questions of love’s selfishness and sacrifice deepen the mystery Ball would document. As it is, the fans of Ball’s novels since Samedi the Deafness will be jolted awake by the halting language of concrete explication. Even the stories spun by relatives as a means to explain one another, find sentences short and constantly revisited. The language Ball adopts is not only one familiar to reportage, but translation—and the earnestness of finding the correct expression.
Oda Sotatsu’s mother is fond of telling stories by means of clarification: When talking with the mother, the interviewer notes how “the impression of exactitude remains” (18). He experiences a feeling that what she is saying is true; he sees what she sees before the evidence presents itself, before what she has seen appears (e.g. butterflies). Whether the mother is telling the truth about butterflies is negligent without a strong enough moral imperative. In Silence Once Begun, lives are hanging in the balance.
The interview is seeking someone to speak where Oda Sotatsu would not and now cannot. Once a silence had begun, can the silence ever be broken? The novel ponders how reputations are powerful constructs (29): how we are represented, expressed, speaks for us; it can certainly lie for us. Jito says of role-playing: “Each person chooses his life from all the roles in all the theaters. We are a prisoner and his love. For I am sometimes one and sometimes the other. You are one and then the other” (187). The liberated speak from a place of privilege and the imprisoned the limitation of choice. In a mystery based on mistaken identification, conversations on love and identity are the discourse that bind, and often blind the character and reader both.
“You don’t know me at all, I said, but I have a feeling that you know about something that I know” (Interviewer 163).
How can we truly know the other? We understand that different kinds of knowing exist. As one character after another jockeys for supremacy of knowledge, we test their validity. Jiro claims, “He hadn’t done it, because I believe he hadn’t done it” (45). The sister is an educated one yet distanced; Kakuzo is the architect of the crime and vain; Jito Joo, the most intimate of actresses.
Jesse Ball, the interviewer, is consciously aware of influence. How his ability to capture an image through a lens is affected, is made literal and then figurative when he takes photographs of the prison and other locations. He questions his ability to be objective, and the state of his relationship with an interviewee can be temperamental at best. He finds amusement and delight without anticipation by the reader. Even as it could be argued that “everything is contextual” (41), there is still the phenomena of surprise. Few could demonstrate the art of startling the reader into remembering that not everything can be anticipated nor traced back to an origin like Ball; which is key in a story where explanations are not just obscured, but elusive.
The attempt of the novel reads like Joo’s own: “I believe in discovering the love that exists and then trying to understand it. Not to invent a love and try to make it exist, but to find what does exist, and then to see what it is” (180). A sacrifice exists at the heart of this novel, more than one; and a person, more than one. Interpreting it and their meaning, to see what it is is a marvelous experiment, and a convicting one. At what point in the time-line is the act of invention initiated, because it would be dangerous to mistake Joo for not inventing a love into existence, wouldn’t it? Maybe your reading will disagree. Silence Once Begun interrogates human impulses: what we would remember, and what we would choose to conveniently forget.
If your cups of tea always require coherence in the mystery to be opaque in the end, to invite an explanatory flashback with solid connecting lines rather than perforated, any of Ball’s work will be uncomfortable, but none more than Silence Once Begun. This is not to suggest Ball leaves lazy gaping holes. His work is impressively spare. No, coherence needn’t have a clear answer everything, and Ball’s coherence artfully alludes to the corrupted nature to the human, the memory, the fictions we tell to make sense of things. The mystery is how we can ever pretend to be so very certain—so certain that we can carry through the life-threatening convictions that we do.
Jesse Ball’s provocation can be both frustrating and an absolute delight; which is how I could describe the conclusion. Ball makes the narrative personal and familiar, investing the reader in a summation that is as tidy as the novel will allow while yet demanding its lingering effect. He does not employ Errol Morris’ chilling play button on a tape recording at the end, but he does compel the reader to ask what it is we wanted to believe happened when the world turned upside down, when the expanding silence entered the room and asked us to wonder why.