IN AND AROUND the Japanese fishing village of Sakai, in Osaka prefecture, a community’s elderly citizens are disappearing without a trace. Years later, after the community has tried and jailed (and worse) a man who confessed to the apparent crimes, a journalist named Jesse Ball sets out to write a book about what actually happened.
In the daring and odd novel by the actual Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun, the confessor is mild-mannered Oda Sotatsu, the oldest son of a fisherman. A relatively bright man, we’re told, by early middle age Sotatsu is a guy you’d forget almost instantly. He’s a middle manager, and a quiet and lonely fan of jazz; as Ball writes, “It seemed he merely was what he did: a quiet daily routine of work and sleep.”
One night during this eerie time, while the village’s elders are disappearing with their bodies unfound, Oda changes the course of his life. He meets up with two iconoclastic lovers, Kakuzo and Jita Joo. The pair proceeds to get him very drunk, and jumping at the chance for something more than monotony, Oda accepts a card game of ominously high stakes. “The music in the bar was loud,” writes Ball, “Oda Sotatsu’s life was difficult and had not yielded him the things he had hoped for.” The three agree that whoever loses the next hand of cards must do something very serious, something that, as Oda sees it, might help him feel alive once again. The final agreement? The loser will “sign a confession.” Sotatsu loses. The next morning, he wakes up in custody, accompanied by a confession signed in his name, containing unique information about the disappearing seniors that only the police would know. The letter seems to confirm without a doubt that meek Oda is the man who should be held responsible.
And so with this hazy set of facts the novel unfolds, and a journalist narrates his effort to investigate the case, to understand why a man would confess to a crime he didn’t commit, and why a community would react the way it did. Much of the book takes place in the form of interviews conducted by Ball with Oda and other key players in the case. Through this ambiguous narration there is much confusion, many lovely and subtle moments of fear and desperation for the characters and for the reader.
One informal but compelling measure of thrillers, for me at least, is how much I can detect, in lingering signs, the joy of creation, as one can in this novel. Imagine the story’s genesis, watching the author’s various strategies to keep the secret, his painstaking efforts to keep building suspense and layers of meaning — all add to the pleasure of the text.
Did any of this ever happen? The disappearances, a card game, a community ready to spill blood? By engineering a story in which a journalist is conducting interviews with a man who has confessed, his family, prison guards, and friends Joo and Kakuzo, Ball creates frightful pages that — like Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel of near-real terror House of Leaves — take on a kind dark life of their own. Because both Ball the character is, really, a second-hand telling, we’re unable to truly trust our own knowledge. The interview-style narration renders the novel’s characters all unreliable, and even we readers become slightly shaky witnesses, ultimately testing that fragile wall between what is and what could be.
As Oda slips deeper into a problem created so lightly — play a card game, go to jail — things become more and more serious. Ball’s interviews recreate the horrible weeks when the jailed man stops eating, suffers endless interrogation, and then ceases to speak. It’s difficult for his family, too, in that the town is livid, and wants not only Sotatsu’s skin, but perhaps that of everyone related to him as well. Meanwhile, lingering over the reading experience, the question persists: what has happened to all the disappearing old people?
In stitching together a wholly imagined but realistically nightmarish situation, Ball toys with our desire to know what maybe can’t be known, meditating as he does on the ideas of public and private judgment, fact and fiction, how we create and undermine our identity, and ultimately what makes life worth living.
Crime or tragedy can make people come together and do something monstrous. Signing that confession and throwing himself into jail, Oda puts his life in imminent danger, but for what? Perhaps this is the life he really wanted. Perhaps all of us aren’t so far away from being hurtled toward an abyss by some hasty agreement made late at night.
The line between victim and victor can also be fine: “Those things I did have made me what I am,” a prison guard tells Oda, of his own rather inoffensive past. “You, on the other hand. You have done a crime. That is why you are here. What you are is a prisoner. That is what you are. However what you are does not determine how you are treated.”
But identity is never simple. Oda is a confessed killer to a crime for which, really, there is no evidence, no concrete proof that it even happened. Working with precise and pregnant intent, Ball attempts to give crime and punishment the same nuanced and challenging treatment as dense and ambitious classic stories like Frank Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” or J.M. Coetzee’s prescient homeland-security parable Waiting for the Barbarians. For its effort to show us the dark, slippery nature of guilt and intent, Silence Once Begun is a wondrous and provocatively strange reading experience that places the actual Jesse Ball among our most compelling and daring writers today.