A meditative mixture

Silence Once Begun sows its gentle grace on simple acts

Though no one seems to agree on what (or whom) existed prior to this universe it is safe to assume that it was at the very least quiet. It is silence that precedes all creation inhabits the space between the murmur of the living and waits patiently for all things to end — or at least shut up. Jesse Ball’s new novel Silence Once Begun is a celebration exploration and mourning of this silence transmuted by the voices that surround it; these comprise the bulk of the novel as interviews newspaper articles and letters punctuated by photographs and the meditations of the novel’s narrator a debatably fictional journalist named Jesse Ball.

Stunned by the closing of a loving relationship Ball journeys to the Osaka region to investigate the “Narito Disappearances” a crime perpetrated in the late 70’s involving the disappearances of a number of elderly men and women in a quiet village near Sakai. A confession appeared one morning signed by Oda Sotatsu a taciturn thread salesman who was soon arrested. Throughout his trial and his incarceration Sotatsu remained invariably silent; he refused to speak infuriating the authorities and a public desperate to locate the missing villagers.

In short quick vignettes the narrator sifts through the accounts of those surrounding the scandal. Immediately we can see the murkiness of not only each individual’s account but of the quality of the source material such as a series of police interrogations that are delivered as transcripts “possibly altered or shoddily made” with no original recording provided. The narrator even forgoes transcribing certain interviews instead providing only a paraphrased recollection from memory. The volume of the collected voices is dampened by these inconsistencies the search for truth interrupted by accounts faded by time memory and the wear of passing hands.

Through these interviews the characters contradict disparage and even disown each other; doubt and distrust reveal aspects of each individual that their own meandering reflections leave out. Through this threading of opposing accounts often picked up mid-way and similarly left off each character emerges translucent from the resulting weave: Sotatsu’s devoted brother Jiro his indifferent sister aggrieved mother and shamed father; Jito Joo an enigmatic woman allowed unlimited access to Sotatsu despite restrictions applied even to his family; and the charismatic Sato Kakuzo whose shady influence can be felt lying beneath each event in Sotatsu’s tragic incarceration.

Between each musing there is a stillness that translates into beauty; everywhere silence sows its gentle grace on simple acts. Shifts in typography punctuation and formatting mark the transitions between interview and newspaper article personal letter and manifesto photographs flitting between text. Throughout all of this Sotatsu remains mute unwilling to refute his guilt or defend his innocence even to those who love him most. The fictional Jesse Ball however cannot keep silent frequently interjecting with his reflections lyrical passages evoking the beauty and sadness of his time in Japan and a desperate loneliness reminiscent of the novels of Kobo Abe (who the real Jesse Ball dedicates this novel to). He cannot refrain from mixing his personal encounter with silence deep into the mix stirred together by his investigation. From Diderot to Sorrentino the novel has undergone similar concoctions subject to alchemy and a wild combining of parallel or opposing elements. Silence Once Begun abandons the playful experimentation of these chimeras in favour of a more elegiac meditative mixture one in which different elements fortify the narrative and its emotional resonance instead of defying it. It is a quiet novel to be read alone in empty rooms or empty forests: not spoken murmured nor mouthed.

Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball published by Pantheon 256 pp.