Sublime Sounds: Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

on Sunday, January 5, 2014
Here's a strange thought. Is it possible that I read the best book of 2014 on the very first day of the year?

It took all my self control not to crack it open the moment the package arrived on my doorstep. There were still four days left in 2013. To read this book, like every fibre in my body was telling me to do, would have upset the space/time continuum. A 2014 book read and reviewed in 2013? If it turned out to be as good as I expected, I would be forced to let it fight The Infatuations to the literary death for top position. Would that even have been fair given that a book from the future must have all the disintegration laser Martian technologies you'd expect if, like me, you spent your childhood locked in your room with comic books and computer games and trashy sci-fi novels? Most importantly, could I possibly deny myself the great joy of yammering on about it for the next eleven and three quarter months?

Well, never fear. I resisted. There will be much yammering.

As I watched the countdown on TV, my fingers anxiously skittered across the cover of Jesse Ball's highly anticipated new novel, Silence Once Begun. The follow up to my favourite book of 2011, The Curfew, it is his first novel to be published in hardcover, the first to be published by Pantheon (part of the Knopf publishing family) and, most likely, the first to get the kind of widespread exposure he has long deserved. Put simply, there is a lot riding on this book. The moment the first firework exploded, I began reading.

Allegedly based (albeit very loosely) on true events, Silence Once Begun is the story of Oda Sotatsu, an unassuming man who confesses to a series of disappearances in 1970s Japan. The crimes themselves are intriguing, but what makes Oda's story so unique is his complete silence from the time he is arrested until his execution. Other than a few very minor exchanges with the various other players, he simply does not speak. Even more disturbing, it is quite clear that he did not commit the crimes - only a written confession, handed in prior to his arrest, links him to the disappearances. There is no other evidence.

Ball (or a fictional simulacrum thereof) unfurls Oda's story through a series of interviews with all the others involved in the case: his parents, his brother, his sister, the court reporter, a prison guard and, finally, the two most significant and troubling characters, a mysterious woman called Jito Joo and the very shady mastermind of it all, Sato Kakuzo. Each share their own impression of Oda and his involvement in the crime. Some are crushed by the weight of shame, some vigorously defend him, some accept his guilt but warm to him and the dignity he displays throughout the process. Despite their differences, there is one thing that links them all: a strong belief that nobody else's version can be trusted. Silence Once Begun is not a tale told by an unreliable narrator, it is one told by a whole slew of them.

Ball adds some editorial commentary between the interviews, but for the most part it is just their voices building up to a deafening wall of white noise. The effect is quite spectacular. When it reaches a crescendo, Ball pulls back and gives the stage to the soft, romantic voice of Jito Joo. Now in her late 50s she offers a version steeped in nostalgic poetry, a tragic love story. That is if she is to be believed. The moment Joo signs off, Sato Kakuzo steps in to declare her totally untrustworthy and complicit in the plot. His is the last version, and by far the most disturbing. It is not a chronology but a manifesto; Sato's great plan to shake the complacent Japanese society to its core by subverting its most sacred cultural mores. Think Machiavelli meets the Leopold and Loeb. The very identity of the country will be his victim. Oda is merely the patsy. When Sato does the great unveil, you can't help but be furious at the way the machinery of a developed society can be made to run on its own steam in the completely wrong direction. As Sato says, "The judges are doing what I am telling them to do, simply because I understand better than they do this one thing: the absurd lengths to which human beings go to prove themselves reasonable".

Ball dedicates the book to two of my favourite Japanese authors, Kobo Abe and Shusaku Endo. It's not hard to see their influence. Silence Once Begun is daring in both form and substance. It says a lot about the selective way in which we construct truths, how we don't actually need the central event or player for us to settle on an accepted or acceptable narrative. Japanese society is the perfect prism for Ball's argument, but it would be wrong not to see ourselves in some of the refracted rays.

With Silence Once Begun Jesse Ball has shattered the wall of sound in spectacular fashion. It is a towering achievement and, to my mind, the benchmark for all fiction this year.

5 Out of 5 Lynched Larynxes


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