“He carried a sort of tent of silence with him, and out of it he refused to come."
Review: Silence Once Begun, Jesse Ball, 2014, Pantheon
A man named Jesse Ball loses his wife. She ceases speaking, their marriage falls apart. What happened to her seems incomprehensible. He later reads about the Narito disappearances of 1970s Japan, where ten elderly men and women went missing. A confession to these disappearances was tendered and a man named Oda Sotatsu was arrested, imprisoned and executed. From the moment he was taken into police custody, Oda no longer spoke. He attested to the confession but gave no further information. The community was in uproar. Are these people still alive? Where are their bodies?
40 years later Ball travels to Japan to write a novel about this mystery. He knows that Oda did not commit these crimes. He tracks down Oda’s surviving relatives and some of his old acquaintances, interviewing them all a number of times, transcriptions of these interviews slowly overlap and a sketch of Oda's life materialises. Ball finds tape recordings of Oda's police interrogations, where he would be questioned for hours by different officers, each with a different method of inquiry, who all fail to extract any information from their diminutive subject. The Oda that emerges was a quiet, courteous, lonely bureaucrat, little punctuated his life, but little suggested his discontent was so great or overwhelming. His interactions with others were marked by a duty of kindness. One neighbour of Oda's tells a story: An old woman in their building had new furniture moved into her apartment, but the new lounge became stuck in her doorway, and she was trapped inside. She was distraught, it was getting late, the movers had gone home. She would peer through the crack between the doorway and the stuck lounge into the hallway appealing to anyone who passed by.
So, Oda, what does he do? He goes up there with a little lamp and he sits on one side of the door and he talks to the old woman the whole night, doesn’t leave until the morning. You know, I don’t think he even liked her. He was just that way. A kind boy. Matter of fact, no one liked that old woman.
Ball is careful to note that his assemblage of documentary interviews, transcriptions and newspaper clippings has been carefully reconfigured into a novel, that any reader should be wary or hesitant of him and his meddling efforts. Jesse Ball is, in fact, also the author of Silence Once Begun, his fourth novel. There are different versions of Ball, just as there are countless versions of Oda. The same wariness extends into the testimony of Oda's relatives. As more and more of their stories build up they begin to interact and inform each other, in turns illuminating characters’ motivations and obscuring any sense of a single, reliable voice. Oda's brother breaks into long, vaguely allegorical tales. His mother retells memories of Oda's childhood. Many of these stories are mired in inexplicability, there is a serene acceptance of what happens or has happened, as though the question of 'why' has long been buried.
This question still motivates Ball, not in the fevered drive of an investigative journalist who must resolve every mystery he comes across, but because it will offer an oblique explanation of his own wife's silence. Why exactly did Oda sign a confession and consent to be executed for a crime he did not commit? What trauma motivates someone to such an extreme end? Every new angle, each new character both clarifies and effaces these questions. It might be expected that some event will be uncovered or deciphered that would crack the case, that would immediately reconfigure Oda into the person he was, so we could stand in front of his hologram and simply ask him why he did it. Maybe he was molested as a boy, he suffered grave depression, he could see dead people. If this were ever revealed, if it were history that silenced Oda, his story would be severed from Ball's wife's, and from all of ours.
Critics have pointed to Silence Once Begun as the 21st century’s The Trial by Franz Kafka. The frantic haplessness of Josef K., arrested on the morning of his 30th birthday for a crime he is never made aware of, is replaced with Oda Sotatsu's infinite quietude—they are immediate opposites, K. knows not of what he is accused, but the Law does, and from K.'s vantage, the Law is an inaccessible fortress. K.'s wonderful speeches to magistrates and judges always do his case great harm but he continues on with them nonetheless, he is powerless to do anything else. Oda says nothing. The Law is baffled. In a flurry "to do something" (does this ring a bell? King hit lockout laws?) he is executed summarily. Nothing but his signed confession, no evidence, witness testimony, nothing else implicates Oda or proves his guilt. Police officers, lawyers and judges are all cut off from Oda—“He carried a sort of tent of silence with him, and out of it he refused to come". In The Trial Josef K. was unable to know and engage with the Law, in Silence Once Begun this is reversed, here the Law is unable to properly interact with Oda, he sits outside its process completely, it moves around him in the same panicked helpless state that K. once knew so well. It feels like a certain tragic revenge—Oda Sotatsu's death was needed in order to invert the Law and put its failings on show.
Outside both writers' preoccupations with speech and the Law, it is the German modernist's precision, his acute and penetrating gaze, that Ball has found access to and has used to address a different kind of absurdity—a much softer, more latent disquiet in modern life. This peculiar numbness is, appropriately, difficult to articulate. If it were turned into an explanation for the mystery of Oda, it feels unsatisfactory. Those who read mysteries to find out who did it, or who read The Trial trying to figure out what K. had done to get himself arrested, will be compelled through the novel by a painful frustration. The madness of Josef K.'s engagement with the law was easily processed—it is a given that the Law, at the least, is wildly inaccessible and bureaucratic. But the nature of his guilt—was K. finally guilty of simply being a guilty person?—had no exact description and defied understanding. And likewise, if it is modern society that failed Oda, there is no broad and ready acceptance that life is truly that awful, so universally lifeless, to make Oda's motivations clear or intelligible.
As more details behind Oda's confession and the Narito disappearances are revealed, particularly the motivations behind Kakuzo, the man who compelled Oda to sign this confession, the outside world takes on the kind of rapid hostility that Kafka imagined so well. Perhaps Oda’s only true act was to mark himself against this world, to restore into his life something remote that had been lost.
I'll finish with a note on the cover by the talented Peter Mendelsund.
Silence is tricky to turn into an immediate visual—it relies on absence. The subtitle "A Novel" appears in place of a mouth, initially lending an optimistic tone to Ball's endeavour: Oda is no longer silent, this assortment of interview and documentary evidence in its differing and overlapping strands can speak in the place of Oda's mouth, he can be explained. But it is feverishly crossed out—this is not Oda speaking, Oda does not speak in novels, it is instead some finely spun version of Jesse Ball who speaks, who has appropriated Oda's story to address the mystery of his fictional wife, and in doing so has created a kind of contemporary fable. In the end, only a story that has been erased and overwritten can ever begin to speak about silence.
The puzzle that drives this novel—what was it that happened to Oda, what catastrophe or societal failure rendered him mute?—is replaced by the unsettling thought that this disaster might be part of language, that the language of 'the novel' only propagates trauma, it can't properly represent or be the revelatory tool that Ball seeks. He sets out to explain or understand the sudden silence of his wife and returned with only inferences and distortions, with stories upon stories that all indicate the presence of one more story that might help explain them all, but that is and always will be missing.