Over the course of several months, eight people vanish from their homes in the same Japanese town, a single playing card found on each door. Known as “the Narito Disappearances,” the crime has authorities baffled—until a confession appears on the police’s doorstep, signed by one Oda Sotatsu, a thread salesman.
Sotatsu is arrested, jailed, and interrogated, but he refuses to speak. Even as his family comes to visit, even as his execution looms, and even as a young woman named Jito Joo enters his cell, he maintains his vow of silence. And as a journalist’s obsession uncovers more to the story, Jesse Ball spins a wildly inventive and emotionally powerful take of unjust conviction and lost love.
A First Telling of the Story
Oda Sotatsu was a young man in October of 1977. He was in the twenty-ninth year of his life. He worked in an office, an import/export business owned by his uncle. They principally sold thread. To do this, they bought thread also. Mostly for Sotatsu it was buying and selling thread. He did not like it very much, but went about it without complaint. He lived alone, had no girlfriend, no pets. He had a basic education and a small circle of acquaintances. He appears to have been well thought of. He liked jazz and had a record player. He wore simple, muted clothing, ate most meals at home. The more passionately he felt about a subject, the less likely he would be to join a discussion. Many people knew him, and lived beside him, near him—but few could say they had any sense of what he was really like. They had not suspected that he was really like anything. It seemed he merely was what he did: a quiet daily routine of work and sleep.
The story of Oda Sotatsu begins with a confession that he signed.
He had fallen in with a man named Kakuzo and a girl named Jito Joo. These were somewhat wild characters, particularly Sato Kakuzo. He was in trouble, or had been. People knew it.
Now this is what happened: somehow Kakuzo met Oda Sotatsu, and somehow he convinced him to sign a confession for a crime that he had not committed.
That he should sign a confession for a crime that he did not commit is strange. It is hard to believe. Yet, he did in fact sign it. When I learned of these events, and when I researched them, I found that there was a reason he did so, and that reason is—he was compelled to by a wager.
There were several accounts of how that evening went. One was the version that had been in the newspapers. Another was a version told by Oda Sotatsu’s family. Still a third was the version held to by Sato Kakuzo. This final version is stronger than the others for the reason that Kakuzo taped the proceedings and showed the tape to me. I have listened to it many times, and each time, I hear things that I have not heard before. One has the impression that one can know life, actual life, from its simulacrums by the fact that actual life constantly deceives and reveals, and is consistent in doing so.
I will describe for you the events of that evening.
When I listened to the tape, the conversation was, in places, difficult to make out. The music was loud. As the night wore on, the party drank and spoke quite rapidly. In general, the atmosphere was that of a bar. Someone (Joo?) repeatedly gets up, leaves, returns, scraping her chair loudly against the wooden floor. They spoke inconsequentially for about forty minutes, and then they reached the matter of the wager.
Kakuzo led into it quietly. He spoke fluidly and described a sort of comradeship that they shared, the three of them. He acted as though they were all fed up with life. Joo and he, he said, had been doing things to try to escape this feeling. One of those things was to wager on cards, in a private game between the two of them. He said when he would lose, he would cut himself. Or Joo would cut herself, if she should lose. He said they went from that to other things, to forcing each other to do things, in order to feel alive again. But it all revolved around the wagering, around letting life hang in a balance. Did Sotatsu not think that was fascinating? Was he in no way stirred to try it?
All night, they were at him, Joo and Kakuzo, and finally, they convinced him. In fact, they had chosen him because he had appeared to them as someone who might be convinced, who could be convinced of such a thing. And indeed, it proved true; they were able to make him join their game.
He and Kakuzo made a wager. The wager was that the loser, whoever he was, would sign a confession. Kakuzo had brought the confession. He set it out on the table. The loser would sign it, and Joo would bring it to the police station. All that one could feel in life would be gathered up into this single moment when the wager went forward and one’s entire life hung on the flip of a card. Kakuzo had brought the cards as well, and they sat there on the table beside the confession.
The music in the bar was loud. Oda Sotatsu’s life was difficult and had not yielded to him the things he had hoped for. He liked and respected both Kakuzo and Joo and they were bent entirely on him, and on his doing of this thing. This is how it turned out: Oda Sotatsu wagered with Sato Kakuzo. He lost the wager. He took a pen and he signed the confession, there on the table. Joo took it with her and she and Kakuzo left the bar. Oda went home to his small apartment. Whether he slept or not, we do not know.
Excerpted from Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball. Copyright © 2014 by Jesse Ball. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Jesse Ball is the author of four novels--Samedi the Deafness, The Way Through Doors, The Curfew, and Silence Once Begun--as well as several works of verse, bestiaries, and sketchbooks. His prizes include the 2008 Paris Review Plimpton Prize; his verse has been included in the Best American Poetry series. He gives classes on lucid dreaming and lying in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago's MFA Writing program. His next novel, A Cure for Suicide, is to be published by Pantheon in 2015.
1. Why does the author tell the story from the point of view of a journalist? How does that enhance the rhythm of the story’s telling?
2. Why do you think the author chose to use his own name as the narrator? He states, at the beginning, “The following work of fiction is partially based on fact.” Which parts do you think could be fact?
3. If you reordered the sections of the book, do you think it would change your view of the novel? Why do you think the author chose to put the story of the wager first? And last? Would you read the book differently if (like most of the characters), you didn’t know anything about the wager to begin with?
4. What does it mean to “fall silent” within the context of Oda’s life? The narrator’s? What are more figurative ways people fall silent?
5. Why do you think Oda Sotatsu remained silent, despite his plight? Was it honor? A way to escape?
6. If you were bound by a promise do you think you could remain silent? Do you think you would, in spite of the people it hurt? Or, have you been blamed for something that you didn’t do, because you couldn’t speak of it?
7. Mr. Oda is very opinionated about Sotatsu. Discuss the reasons he may be so vehement about his eldest son.
8. In an early interview with Mrs. Oda, she shares a story about waterfalls that she told Sotatsu while he was imprisoned. Although Sotatsu was too young to remember this, his mother repeated the story every time she visited him. What significance do you think this story has for Mrs. Oda? How do you think it affected Sotatsu to hear it in his jail cell?
9. Later, Mrs. Oda says she did not trust Jiro when he said Sotatsu told him he didn’t do it, and doesn’t trust anything Jiro remembers from that period. Why does Mrs. Oda distrust both of her sons?
10. How are the stories Mrs. Oda relates about Sotatsu’s spoon and his meeting with the mayor different from her waterfall story? How can these antithetical ideas of Sotatsu be reconciled?
11. Sotatsu’s brother, Jiro, was one of his biggest supporters. Sotatsu didn’t speak to him after he signed the confession. Jiro never knew what happened. He kept going to the jail, regardless. How would you handle it if one of your family members was in a situation where they were in trouble and wouldn’t speak to you?
12. Describe your feelings about the interviews with Sotatsu’s sister. How does she fit into the family dynamic?
13. How does the Oda family relate to one another? How do you think Sotatsu’s demise changed this? Do you think the emotions and memories brought out by the interviews changed any of the characters’ perceptions of what happened?
14. What do you think would change for the Oda family if they knew about the wager?
15. Discuss the character of Jito Joo. Why did she let Sotatsu go through with signing the confession? Why doesn’t Joo tell anyone the truth about Sotatsu’s situation?
16. Why did Joo start visiting Sotatsu in prison? When do you think she fell in love with him? Was the way Joo lived her life her own way of sharing his silence?
17. Jito Joo and the narrator both have had people they love fall silent. “‘You know,’ [Joo] said, ‘Nothing is for any reason.’” What does this mean?
18. Discuss Sato Kakuzo. Does the idea that he brought the confession, a tape recorder, and his own deck of cards make you suspicious of him? Was he himself responsible for the Narito Disappearances? Does it matter? Does the idea that it might be a simple matter of chance make Oda’s situation seem better or worse?
19. Why do you think Sato picked Oda to sign the confession? Did he expect Oda to follow through on his promise?
20. Do you think Oda Sotatsu was aware of the full repercussions when he agreed to the wager? When do you think it became real for him?
21. In the end, do you feel you have a full picture of Sotatsu’s situation? Can we ever see anyone clearly without getting their personal view? Would you like to be told the full story or would that detract from your interest in learning the truth?
22. What does someone’s becoming silent mean to their family members and loved ones? How does one gain closure or move on from a situation like Sotatsu’s, or even one in which the silent person lives on, where there is always a hope they may speak?
23. If you were in Sotatsu’s place (having signed a confession without saying anything more about it), what do you think your family, friends, and neighbors would say about you? How would their interviews go? Where would their reflections lead them?