A Man Without Words

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

At twenty-eight, Ildefonso—an illegal alien from rural Mexico, deaf since birth—sat in a community college classroom in Los Angeles. Arms folded defensively across his chest, he studied the activity around him. His dark eyes expressed fear and confusion, but they also radiated curiosity and longing. This smoldering intelligence captivated Susan Schaller, a young sign language interpreter, and she became determined to introduce Ildefonso to the world of words.

But Ildefonso had no concept of language—signed, spoken, or written. At first he simply mimicked Schaller’s signs, frustrating them both. Eventually, through the naively ingenious teaching strategies that Schaller concocted, Ildefonso came to connect the sign “cat” with his own experience and with the written word. “Ildefonso’s face opened in excitement as he slowly pondered the revelation,” Schaller says. “Slowly at first, then hungrily, he took in everything as though he had never seen anything before.”

This book presents not only Ildefonso’s first glimpse of language but also Schaller’s re-vision. A hearing person enthralled with American Sign Language since she was seventeen, she asks age-old questions—what is language, what is it like to live without language—but in a fresh, stimulating way. Despite references to language scholarship, this is a simple book written from the heart.

After several months, Ildefonso leaves school, and he and Schaller lose contact. When she finds him seven years later, Ildefonso is a fluent signer. Trying to tell her what it was like to communicate without language, Ildefonso introduces Schaller to his languageless friends—almost a lost tribe—and her record of the experience offers a tantalizing glimpse of the unknown. Schaller also compels the reader to wonder with her what it is like to be Ildefonso, gaining fluency in American Sign Language but still enjoying the company of people without words and isolated from most of his fellow men as he goes about his solitary duties as a hospital gardener. This book opens up many more questions than it answers, which is no doubt just what Schaller intended.