Crime And Punishment

Jesse Ball’s “Silence Once Begun” is the unusual tale of Oda Sotatsu, a young thread salesman, who lives a solitary, unremarkable life.

Everything changes for him when, one night, at a bar, he accepts a wager laid by his friends—a restless couple, inspired by the French Situationists, a revolutionary movement of the 1960s.

When he loses a card game, he agrees to sign a confession to a string of inexplicable disappearances that have puzzled authorities in the region.

Through his trial, incarceration, and execution by hanging, rather than profess his innocence, he tires out his interrogators by his enigmatic refusal to speak. He doesn’t break his vow of silence even when his mother, sister, father, brother, and a lawyer, visit him in jail.

Years after this singular incident, a passionate journalist named Jesse Ball—who is a fictional version of the author himself—travels to this village, near Sakai, a city in Japan’s Osaka prefecture, to investigate it.

What would lead an innocent man to willingly embrace the gallows? This question is at the heart of the mystery he hopes to solve. Tied in with it is his own quest to seek an answer to the break-up of his own relationship.

Ball speaks with the surviving family members, a prison guard, the charming Jito Joo—the girl who visited Sotatsu in his cell—as well as his friend, Sato Kakuzo.

The style, beautifully sparse, is the literary equivalent of a piece of mixed-media art. Using a combination of straight-forward narratives, newspaper reports, interview transcripts, letters, and ancillary documents, it conveys a sense that the events described did, indeed, take place.

A prefatory note on the text—“The following work of fiction is partially based on fact”—tricks the reader into believing it to be loosely based on reality. A handful of grainy, black-and-white photographs complete the meticulous dossier effect.

A story of chance, nobbled; romance, unfulfilled; dupery; and honor; it’s a sad exposé of the Japanese criminal justice system. In reverse, it’s also a portrait of a social hacker, who coldly executes an experiment to lay bare the farcicality of the laws that bind his society.

In a meditation, bordering on jurisprudence, Kakuzo examines the unreliability of confessions.

“It has generally always been the case that a person willing to confess to a crime may be acknowledged to have performed that crime.”

But “such a position is mistaken,” he writes, because “our knowledge about ourselves is our least reliable knowledge. Yet, so thoroughly do we ordinarily champion our own cause that it is acknowledged effective to believe that a person who deems it impossible to any further champion his/her own cause must be guilty.

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