The questions for discussion contained in this guide are designed to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Silence Once Begun.
The themes in this novel are varied and complex. If there are time constraints to your discussion, you may want to focus on one particular theme.
Jesse Ball solidifies his growing reputation as a significant and gifted novelist in his major hardcover fiction debut.
In the small Japanese town of Narito, an unremarkable thread salesman named Oda Sotatsu signs a confession regarding the recent disappearances of eight people. Oda is arrested, jailed, and convicted to a sentence of execution. But through his police interrogations and despite the pleas of his family, Oda refuses to speak about the crimes.
Journalist and narrator Jesse Ball becomes fascinated with the events surrounding Oda’s silence. Why wouldn’t he speak? What secrets was he hiding? Ball interviews Oda’s parents, sister, brother, prison guards, and eventually a mysterious young woman named Jito Joo—who visited Oda in his cell while he awaited execution—as he tries to find the truth behind this awful and heartbreaking silence.
Questions and Topics for Discussion
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?
About this Author
Jesse Ball is the author of three previous novels including Samedi the Deafness,
and 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.