February 2014

Brooks Sterritt

fiction

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball's latest novel, Silence Once Begun, creates and maintains an atmosphere of mystery and melancholy like no other. It begins with an epigraph: "The following work of fiction is partially based on fact." By the work's end, however, even this statement is suspect. Silence Once Begun is built around a secret: eight people disappear in Osaka Prefecture (leaving no trace except a playing card on the door of each home). A man named Oda Sotatsu signs a confession, but refuses to speak after his arrest. You could say Silence Once Begun is built around multiple interlocking secrets.

The narrator, a journalist named Jesse Ball, begins researching "the Narito Disappearances," and his efforts, we are told, compose sections of the book "with the data bound together and expressed in at times novelistic fashion." The previous statement from the "Prefatory Material" is one of many that manage to establish uncertainty in the novel. If you told me Jesse Ball had lived in Japan for years, I would believe you. If you told me Ball had never visited Japan, that this book was a blend of research, fabrication, and invention, I'd believe that too.

The novel's structure furthers the impression of encountering found material. The opening section, for example, is presented as the transcript of an interrogation, and additional sections take the form of interviews, notes made by the interviewer, newspaper articles, letters, documents, and a series of enigmatic photographs. In the case of an interrogation transcript, the "Interviewer Note" situates it thus: "[Int. note. Again, transcript of session recording, possibly altered or shoddily made. Original recording not heard.]"

The reader is presented with a transcript of a recording that is at least one step away from the original. The suspicion that it is "possibly" altered also works to destabilize the reception of the information it contains. In addition, a later note asserts: "it appears that many interrogations are missing from the record" and that an inspector "refers to previous conversations [he and Sotatsu] have had, which are unrecorded." Not only does the narrator bring into question the veracity of the material he presents, but he also suggests the existence of a large body of knowledge we cannot access. In this sense, you could call the novel realistic.

To quote Oda Minako, Sotatsu's sister: "Everything is contextual." To quote Mr. Oda, Sotatsu's father: "You shouldn't listen to the others." In fact, several characters insist that their story is the one to be trusted above all. A guard, Watanabe Garo, refers to "a series of rooms" inside the prison, which is an apt descriptor for the novel's structure as well. In isolation, each character is unable to see, or comprehend, the viewpoints of other characters in other rooms. Differing versions of truth are subjective spaces, and unasked questions are unopened doors.

Silence Once Begun concerns itself with absence: the story hinges on what is not known, people who have disappeared, and connections that may or not exist. The information that is revealed, however -- childhood memories, bittersweet relationships, strange coincidences -- is often lyrical and heartfelt, and the tale is well worth telling despite overwhelming uncertainty. According to the narrator, there are several accounts of the evening Oda Sotatsu signed the confession. Of one version he writes: "One has the impression that 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."

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-0307908483
256 pages