A Review of Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball
From the spring to the early autumn of 1977, eleven people were kidnapped and never found in the Sakai province of Japan. Dubbed the Narito Disappearances in local papers, they went unsolved for months until a signed confession was hand-delivered to police stating that Oda Sotatsu, a local thread salesman, was the perpetrator. Following his arrest Sotatsu was put on trial and eventually sentenced to death, barely uttering a word throughout the entire process, never admitting nor denying his guilt.
Or so goes the story of Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball, a fictional retelling of a local crime story in Sakai, Japan, in which Ball himself becomes a character, that of interviewer and investigator. What follows is a work fiction, partially based on fact. Despite knowing this from the outset, the story that ensued was so completely captivating and at times convincing that by the time I reached the end, I found myself unendingly confused. What was true, what was flat-out false, and what was embellishment?
Through interviews, Ball’s character attempts to recreate the events of Sotatsu’s trial, imprisonment, and execution by piecing together decades-old memories of the people surrounding Sotatsu.
These are primarily Sotatsu’s mother and brother who try to convey to Ball their more favorable perceptions of Sotatsu, recounting in equal measure Sotatsu’s childhood and his time in prison.
Although both supported Sotatsu through his arrest and imprisonment their memories render two glaringly opposed family stances. Their interviews create an astonishingly poetic sense of a house divided, standing in diametric opposition Sotatsu’s sister and father, both of whom go to great lengths to sever any connection to Sotatsu.
There is also the testimony of one prison guard, almost inconsequential, save for whatever knowledge he can offer of Sotatsu’s mental and physical state during his final days. His long-winded replies convey an overt sense of self-importance that I often found monotonous.
Finally, there come the most powerful testimonies of Jito Joo and Sato Kakuzo, two interlocutors who became close to Sotatsu near the time of his arrest. In these passages the novel truly comes to life through their words.
While Joo unravels a poetic examination of love and truth, uncovering the unexpected metamorphoses that life sometimes forces us into, Kakuzo reveals a starkly clinical hypothesizing mind intent on righting social ills. Ball’s encounters with these characters are bizarre and invigorating, and most importantly they finally illuminate how and why a simply thread salesman like Sotatsu became entangled in a web of murder, kidnapping, and intrigue.
Throughout the novel silence carries a weight and a meaning, unmatched by words. Lovers can love one another profoundly, but without words, lives can be destroyed by words, sometimes false, and ended by silences. Silence itself seems to become its own character, blurring the line between what is false and what is fact. The truth seems to lay nestled in the silences, but to begin to unveil it yields even greater surprises and unexpected revelations.
With even more weight, however, Ball’s work highlights the dangers of mob mentality, the question of when and how to seek justice, and most prominently the search we all endure to find meaning in our lives. To fully uncover and understand the interconnectedness of these themes, however, I encourage you to read the book for yourself as the twisting storylines are too bizarre to fully encompass in a review.
Silence Once Begun is a brilliant read, one that screams volumes in its silences.