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Many will not have heard of it, but for some “Milan, 1880” is an icon: the moment when sign language was banned in the education of the Deaf. Hearing educators gathered in Milan for the “Second International Congress on the Education of Deaf” and tried to impose, with some success, the so-called pure oral method across Europe and North America. The suppression of sign language in education brought about by the conference challenged the existence of both a language and a culture and, in the years that followed, provoked furious reaction from the Deaf and rival Deaf educators.

Tom McCarthy’s latest novel, enigmatically titled C (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), provides, among other things, an imaginative reconstruction of a Deaf school in early 1910s England. C is the story of the Hearing protagonist Serge Carrefax, from childhood growing up around his father’s Deaf school, to his cocaine-fuelled missions as a pilot in the First World War—and, from that point onwards, his craving for sensationalism and speedy transportation. C, like the Milan conference, is preoccupied with the voices of the Deaf: it is, of course, impossible to give those voices of the past fair hearing in the absence of recordings; but if we take a Deaf approach, as McCarthy occasionally attempts to do, then through that Deafness historical fantasy may flourish.

In this piece, a visual review created on Zeega, Gavin Williams weaves these two stories together and places them in dialogue through the construction of an original sign system that turns our eyes to the Deaf past, while listening in to the history of oralism.

The reviewer would like to express thanks to Joana Pimenta for her felicitous guidance throughout, and to Flora Willson for deftly steering the project through many stages.