A Kafkaesque premise rests at the center of Jesse Ball’s intriguing fourth novel, Silence Once Begun. Oda Sotatsu, a 29-year-old man, is arrested in Osaka for his involvement in the disappearance of eight elderly people. The police have a signed confession from Oda, and he refuses to speak in his own defense. Indeed, he refuses to speak at all. But, as readers, we know that Oda did not commit the crime: He has signed the confession having lost a wager made with another man, Sato Kakuzo, and the man’s girlfriend, Jito Joo. Why has Oda admitted to something he didn’t do, and why is he willing to die for it?
Like any unsolved crime, this novel haunts us.
A journalist, named Jesse Ball in the postmodern fashion, is haunted by this long forgotten incident and sets out to discover the truth. In a series of interviews—with Oda’s disgraced family, a prison guard, the sensationalist newspaper reporter who covered the trial and, in the end, Joo and Kakuzo themselves—he pieces together the strange series of events. Unfolding like a documentary film, the narrative “truth” changes with each person’s version of things, which, of course, often reflects the teller in the best light. The reader is left to determine which story is closest to what really occurred.
By setting the novel in Japan, the American writer is inviting comparison to Kurosawa’s classic film, Rashomon, and Ball has acknowledged his debt to Kobo Abe and Shusaku Endo as well. Japanese notions of family honor and public shame are central, although the underlying themes are universal. An epigraph stating that it is a work of fiction partially based on fact adds a tantalizing element to a story about the nature of truth-telling—is it derived from an actual miscarriage of justice, one wonders, or is Ball manipulating us here, too? Even at its close, when everything has been (mostly) explained, the reader is intentionally left with unanswered questions about Oda’s somewhat inexplicable sense of honor and Joo’s complicated declarations of love, among other things. Ball’s calculated use of silence is masterful, and the novel haunts us, like any unsolved crime.