In Jesse Ball’s absorbing, finely wrought fourth novel, “Silence Once Begun,” a journalist also named Jesse Ball tells the story of a thread salesman who makes a wager with two people in a bar. Upon losing that wager, he signs an extremely detailed confession to a crime he didn’t commit — the kidnapping of eight people from a Japanese town called Narito over the course of four months. The kidnappings, known to the populace as the “Narito Disappearances,” have spurred a moral panic that demands a scapegoat. A man who would offer himself up as that scapegoat is taking the most desperate of chances, asking all his fellow men for some proof that he should continue to live.
“Many people knew him,” Ball writes of the salesman, Oda Sotatsu, “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 narrator is sympathetic to this quiet man’s rebellion against “the stretching on seemingly pointlessly, of life, day after day with no one to call it off.” Sotatsu raises the stakes even higher by refusing to defend or explain himself, marking time in silence “in a jail where the sun came south through the window on an avenue all its own where it was forced to stoop and stoop again until when it arrived at its little house it was hardly the sun at all, just a shabby old woman.”