Wednesday, March 12, 2014


We anticipate this moment like the latent heat you can taste in the air even before the snow has melted. In the sights of a gun steadied by a principled hand, or under the searing light of an interrogation lamp, the suspect is pinned and starting to struggle.

At first, he’s tearful: “You’ve…you’ve got the wrong person!”

At first, she denies it: “Surely you don’t think that I…”

And then, her voice deepens, his chest puffs up, and the trembling cusp of the confession reaches its breaking point and spews out heartache, resignation, rage, an exhaustive and loose-end-tying back story, and a sizable portion of still-twitching guts. The onslaught of the tell-all: “I did it! It was me! And why not? It’s not like anyone cared anyway, and besides I would have gotten away with it too! I was so close!” The investigator’s eyes glint with satisfaction, or maybe a parental furrowed brow. But the confession is also always the conclusion, the climactic answer to the mysteries of the book or episode, and Hercule Poirot, Scully and Mulder, and Jessica Fletcher can go home basking in the afterglow of another case neatly solved. This is, very obviously, not how things go in real life, where cold cases, thorough investigations, and the necessity for evidence beyond matching lipstick traces and dusted fingerprints prevail. But we are not immune to wanting the truth in simple, tidy admissions, as stories of false confessions or falsely accused convicts who refuse to confess will attest. It is this blind trust in confession and narration and our desire for tidy answers and finite truths that Jesse Ball investigates in his most recent novel, Silence Once Begun.

Jesse Ball has lent his own name to the narrator and interviewer of his story, which begins to complicate the line between truth and fiction. Ball character’s wife and love of his life has inexplicably fallen silent, and subsequently their life together is seemingly over. Prompted by this heartbreak he is seeking to understand, Ball is investigating a series of events that happened nearly 40 years previously in the Osaka Prefecture in Japan. This long-gone criminal case centres on a suspect, Oda Sotatsu, who signed a confession and then, once he had been locked away and the case had begun, fell silent.

The story of the case begins at a bar with three figures around a table: two men and one woman. The one man makes a wager with the other—that the loser will sign a confession and the woman will bring it to the police station. After flipping the wrong card, Oda Sotatsu, a mild-mannered thread salesman with a quiet daily routine of work and sleep and a little light jazz, loses the wager and signs a confession. The confession states that he orchestrated the “Narito Disappearances:” eight elderly people who vanished seemingly into thin air, with no trace of struggle or preparation. Food is left out on the table, no personal items are missing, and a playing card pinned to the front door of each. Though the mystery has a confession, the confessor refuses to speak or give any further information that would lead to the resolution of the case.

The book unfolds like a folio of documents assembled by the reporter Jesse Ball: interrogation transcripts, interviews with Oda’s family, photographs, newspaper clippings of trial coverage, interviewer’s notes, and finally, records of visits with the two key players: Jito Joo, the woman who brought the confession to the police, and Sato Kakuzo, the man who made the wager. From this collection of documents, you make your own sense, draw conclusions from the presented accounts. I’m reminded of Sophie Calle’s excellent accumulation The Address Book, which she made after finding Pierre D.’s address book one June evening. The book is pieced together through the artist’s interviews with its owner’s friends, colleagues, and acquaintances whose addresses and phone numbers were contained in the book. The accounts differ from person to person, those who liked him, those who ate dinner with him every Thursday, those who had a falling-out over a philosophical difference. The collected stories, articles, and pictures in Silence Once Begun are similarly conflicting and sometimes divergent: the newspapers paint Oda as an unfeeling killer, a prison guard recounts talking Oda through each step of his eventual execution, his landlady’s daughter remembers his arrest, Jito Joo talks of her affection for him, Oda’s mother re-tells his favourite childhood story. As Sato Kakuzo warns in his interview transcript, “you have to be careful whom you trust. Everyone has a version, and most of them are wrong.” (211) Ball pays acute attention to the intricacies of projection and understanding throughout the book: the particular way Oda holds his mouth is read as an enigmatic smile by Jito Joo, and as a result of being silent for so long by his brother Jiro. Maybe we’re as much what we present as how we’re read.

The novel brings together Ball’s characteristic dream-speak prose with the kind of grand conspiracy theory narrative he’s explored before in novels like Samedi the Deafness. Weaving together a sturdy intertextual cloth of new parables and semi-fictional resources, Ball’s writing is both intricate and a cipher, eliciting a deep and uncertain reading. In one parenthetical section, the character Jesse Ball recalls a book from his childhood about an Austrian huntsman called Any Trick to Finding. The huntsman has a special trick for finding things/objects, and can find anything at all by not looking for it. When asked to find a spoon in a quiet room, instead of looking for a small metal object, the huntsman would look around the room. He would find something spoon-like in the curve of the couch, emptied of its cushions, and even of the room in which he stood. “He did not permit the previously drawn categories of objects that had been set before him in the world to stop up his eyes and halt his discoveries.” (160) Whatever is set before us—a story, or a work of art, or a confession—is a possibility to look beyond what you are looking for. Instead of trusting the simple answer of the confession, Ball asks us to question the implications, nuance, and ambivalence of the confession as a narrative or story in its own right. Silence Once Begun is an invitation to discover through-lines beyond the previously drawn categories of objects and people and texts. 

Danica Evering is an artist, writer, and Amazon queen from Cobourg, Ontario. She prints, binds, chops, and has heated discussions about books with PS Guelph, and co-hosts The Secret Ingredient, a show about ideas and art on CFRU. Currently she’s been thinking about failure, small mythologies, and the effects of emotion on food.

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