Review: Silence Once Begun, by Jesse Ball

41jx7U4-UQL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: January 2014

>>Finally got around to it: September 2014

I am trying to relate to you a tragedy. I am attempting to do so in the manner least prejudicial to the people involved, those people who were survivors of the tragedy, but also the agents of it.

Oda Sotatsu signed a confession. He did not clearly understand what he was doing, perhaps. Or perhaps he did. Nonetheless, he signed it. The next day, Saturday the fifteenth, he was dragged off to jail. Because of the comprehensive nature of the document, the confession, his guilt was never in any doubt. The trial, when it happened, was a rapid affair in which Oda Sotatsu did little, certainly nothing on his own behalf. The police attempted, over the course of the time he was in jail awaiting trial, and the time when he was on death row thereafter, to get him to speak about the crimes he had confessed. He would not. He carried a sort of tent of silence with him, and out of it he refused to come.

Oda was visited many times during the next months by Joo. He never saw Kakuzo again.

Our story continues with information related to me by officers, guards, priests, journalists (present at the time), and by the Oda family. This is how Oda Sotatsu’s story is told.


Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is a book of mixed identities: it is at once an artfully written narrative, pieced together from interview transcriptions and testimonies; a journalistic endeavour from a husband attempting to understand his wife’s sudden silence, which descended upon her like an illness; and a mystery focusing on one man in particular, Oda Sotatsu, and why in 1977 he signed a confession to crimes he did not commit.

The “crimes” for which Sotatsu was imprisoned, and eventually executed, were “the Narito Disappearances”: beginning in June 1977, eight people, two per month, disappeared from the villages surrounding Sakai. The disappeared were both men and women between the ages of fifty and seventy. All lived alone. There were no witnesses, no signs of forced entry or violence. Only a playing card stuck to the door of each victim’s home indicated some type of foul play.

As previously stated, Ball’s book is stylistically divided. In the first part, “The Situation of Oda Sotatsu,” the author sets out not to solve the mystery of the disappeared, but to understand why Sotatsu, an otherwise ordinary individual, would, following a lost wager with a man named Sato Kakuzo, sign a confession to crimes for which he was innocent. Even more confusing, why Sotatsu, when questioned by police, chose to remain silent instead of fighting for his freedom. Indeed he said little to anyone, even family, during his incarceration—and certainly nothing that would’ve mitigated the charges against him. No, Sotatsu maintained his false guilt all the way to the gallows.

Ball traces Sotatsu’s final days via interviews with his family: his brother Jiro, who was Sotatsu’s most ardent supporter; his mother, who warns that Jiro is not to be trusted; his sister Minako, a professor at a university in Korea who returned to Japan for the purposes of Ball’s interview; and eventually Sotatsu’s father, who decided some time ago that Sotatsu did not exist, and the family was not to speak of him—both Sotatsu’s father and sister assumed his confession to be the truth, as did the rest of their village, many of them turning against the family in response.

The author also presents transcriptions from recorded interviews between the investigating officers and Sotatsu himself. They attempted to bribe Sotatsu into giving them further details on the disappeared, offering him better accommodations and the possibility of avoiding the death penalty. But still Sotatsu said nothing.

In the second section, “To Find Jito Joo,” Ball tracks down the woman who, along with Kakuzo, was with Sotatsu the night he signed his life away. He discovers that she visited him frequently over the duration of his imprisonment. In Joo’s own words, she and Sotatsu were in love—a love that is seldom matched in this world.

However, the novel’s third and final part, “Lastly, Kakuzo,” turns Joo’s testimony on its head. The aging anarchist Kakuzo reveals all—his role in the Narito Disappearances, his rationale behind convincing Sotatsu to throw his life away, and how he pushed Joo, his on-again-off-again lover, into Sotatsu’s arms, to convince him to stay silent all the way to his end. And why did he do all this? To upend governmental control—to send an innocent man to his death, and only then reveal that there was no mystery, no disappearances or even malicious intent, in order to illustrate the system’s inherent fallibility. In Kakuzo’s own words, he gained and abused both Sotatsu and Joo’s obedience in order to “cause a dislocation in the life of my society.

Ball’s novel, filled as it is with unreliable narrators, is presented as a fiction based in fact. Its thesis: anarchy is as much the device of the selfish as it is the revolutionary—the trick is in being aware of what lines are being crossed and to what end. In Kakuzo’s case, his ill thought-out anti-government plan only succeeded in losing him the love of Jito Joo, turning an entire village against one family, one family against their son, and costing an innocent man his life.

Not knowing how little of this book is fact and how much of it is fiction does not hinder it in the least. Silence Once Begun is a haunting, minimalist endeavour, and though Sotatsu’s reasons never felt fully clear to me, the impact his short life and incarceration had on those closest to him is readily apparent. And while Sato Kakuzo’s plan did not have the reach he’d hoped, the result was nonetheless catastrophic.


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