By Carolyn Kellogg
Jesse Ball’s “Silence Once Begun” resists the standard narrative tropes of contemporary novels. It pushes against them with antique, gentlemanly language, a conflicting set of stories that clearly reference “Rashomon,” and a structure like a funnel that starts at the wide open end. Because the story’s details unfold slowly, an interested reader ought to ignore the dust jacket: It gives too much away. Ball, a poet, uses the structure of his novels (“Samedi the Deafness,” “The Way Through Doors”) as one way to challenge expectations.
“Silence Once Begun” begins with the narrator (Jesse Ball) telling us that his relationship has ended because of his wife inexplicably falling silent. His need for an explanation leads him to Japan and the story of Oda Sotatsu.
Years before, Sotatsu was arrested for a crime he did not commit; he signed a confession, then refused to speak up to defend himself. “He carried a sort of tent of silence with him, and out of it he refused to come,” Ball writes.
Sotatsu’s family and friends sit down to tell Ball their stories, which follow as transcribed interviews and letters. With only the tenuous connection of silence, their cooperation with Ball’s project is improbable, but realism is not his style. An assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the actual Ball teaches classes in lucid dreaming and lying — at least, that’s what his bio says. His bios have lied before.
So the “Jesse Ball” who appears in the book’s text as the interviewer and narrator is only to be partly believed. And the novel, while presented in a straightforward documentary format, is fiction, and slippery fiction at that.
Sotatsu was a quiet 29-year-old working at a thread factory when he was tricked into signing a confession by two new friends, a man, Sato Kakuzo, and a woman, Jito Joo. We don’t immediately know what the crime is, only that it is something awful.
His devastated family reacted in a variety of ways. His brother was loyal, his sister critical, and his mother followed his father, whose reactions were cruel and unpredictable.
Meanwhile, portions of police interrogations are included; the missing parts imply Sotatsu is being abused and mistreated. From the officers’ questions we learn more about what has happened: A dozen senior citizens have mysteriously disappeared, with a similar card left behind in each case to prove their connection. The police want to know what Sotatsu has done to them, where the bodies are. He doesn’t respond.
Clearly suffering, Sotatsu began a hunger strike. Or maybe, we are told in another account, he was being starved by his guards. One prison guard stole some of Sotatsu’s belongings from his cell, including a photograph of the woman, Jito Joo.
When Joo speaks to Ball, she recalls the events of that time with the unfathomable logic of a dream. The black and white snapshot of her appears in the text. There are others photos as well; some have no apparent explanation, while others eventually reveal themselves. Ball has embedded a poetic visual narrative of empty spaces and rooms within the larger story.
As in Kafka’s “The Trial,” the justice of “Silence Once Begun” is both tragic and absurd. But while Kafka’s characters are trapped, Sotatsu actually has the power to change his fate — he could free himself if he told the courts of the false confession and the people who made him sign it. That he does not makes him complicit in the cruelties enacted upon him.
The book is dedicated to the Japanese writers Kobo Abe and Shusaku Endo, whose 1969 novel “Silence” is a clear antecedent. Ball’s story addresses the power of silence — it can destroy a relationship — and also its failures, for it does not serve Sotatsu well. Meanwhile, Sotatsu’s choices raise questions about the nature of suffering; as the narrative unspools, he seems by turns an existential hero, a Christlike figure, a fool.
Ball has built in a few genuinely surprising twists that exist solely because of how the story is structured. That’s an accomplishment; “Silence Once Begun” is a fascinating project in which almost everything is stripped away but the contradictory stories people tell.