In Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun, the Puzzle Proves a Point

silence once begun

Of silence, I can say only what I heard, that all things are known by that which they make or leave–and so speech isn’t itself, but its effect, and silence is the same.

–Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun

In Jesse Ball‘s most recent novel, Silence Once Begun, Ball goes bravely into the spaces between things, the quiet pauses between our conversations, the assumptions made in the absence of evidence, and our constant obsession with knowing and noise.

Narrator and reporter Jesse Ball investigates a unique criminal case which shook a Japanese town, the case of Oda Sotatsu. Eight older women and men, between the ages of 50-70, have disappeared from villages, under mysterious circumstances. In the place of each resident, a playing card is found.

Oda Sotatsu, a quiet, hard-working young man, a wearer of “simple, muted clothing,” loses a bet, and signs a confession. When he confesses his involvement in the disappearances, his community is shocked, and they beg for more information. Where are their beloved elders? Are they still alive?

silence once begun title page

Preface to Silence Once Begun.

The Jesse Ball of the book, the narrator and reporter Ball, discovers this story via silence. Sotatsu, after his arrest, falls silent. Ball, too, loved someone who one day stopped speaking, with no explanation. At one point, Ball realizes: “In searching for a way out of my own troubles, I had found my way into the trouble of others, some long gone, and now I was trying to find my way back out, through their troubles, as if we human beings can ever learn from one another.”

Ball reassembles the story of Oda Sotatsu through those who still have a voice, no matter how changed by the events surrounding the case that voice has been. The novel consists of interviews with Sotatsu’s family and his lover, transcripts of one-sided police interrogations, stories from the prison guards who knew Sotatsu in jail, and finally an explanation from the man with whom Sotatsu placed that fated bet.

Silence Once Begun is so minimalist at times it feels unsettling, and at times it feels perfect. Even the most unsettling moments are perfect. The story here needs no elaborate scene setting or frenetic, tense mood building. The absence of rhetoric, and the struggle of each character to explain such an unknowable, bizarre, and baffling situation in a clear way, is more interesting than any vivid imagery. How much isn’t said builds more mood than additional words ever could.

I can’t give too much away regarding plot here, although Ball does acknowledge in a (beautiful, concise) Paris Review interview that, “My books, some of them appear to verge on the political. This one certainly seems to be an indictment of a justice system.” In certain moments I hesitated, and wondered if I was reading a crime story at all, or just some sort of meditation on our ability to know the truth. If you have those moments yourself while reading Silence Once Begun, forge on, brave reader, as the ending is a totally unexpected answer to all your questions.

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

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