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"An extraordinary novel, a work of history, science, pure prose, and pervasiv, stunning irony. "Simon Mawer writes beautifully, and the pleasure of his novel comes from the chance to watch him consider the mystery of the world, to report on the clarity with which nature speaks to us."
—The New York Times Book Review
"Furious, tener, and wittily erudite."
—The New Yorker
Doctor Benedict Lambert, the celebrated Benedict Lambert, the diminutive Benedict Lambert, the courageous Benedict Lambert (adjectives skating carefully around the essence of it all) stands to address the members of the Mendel Symposium. Applause has died away. The silence--eyes watching, breath held, hands stilled above notebooks supplied by courtesy of Hewison Pharmaceuticals--is complete. There before the good doctor, ranged in rows like sample tubes in a rack, are all the phenotypes one could wish to see: male and female, ectomorphic and endomorphic, dolichocephalic and brachycephalic, Nordic, Mediterranean, Slav, Mongoloid (three), Negroid (one). There are chins cleft and normal, hair curly and straight, eyes blue and brown and green, skins white, brown, yellow, and black, crania bald and hirsute. It is almost as though the organizers (the Mendelian Association of America in conjunction with Hewison Pharmaceuticals and the Masaryk University of Brno) have trawled through the whole gamut of human variation in order to come up with a representative genetic mix. And yet ...
... and yet there is a constancy that is obvious to all, but consciously perceived only by the truncated figure up on the podium: each and every one of the earnest watchers is subsumed under the epithet phenotypically normal.
Doctor Lambert undoes his wristwatch and places it conspicuously on the lecture trench, a practiced gesture of no chronometric significance. Then he smiles, glances at a page of notes (of equally little mnemonic moment), clears his throat, and begins: "We have all of us visited the monastery." They have. Some nod in agreement, wanting to agree with him, wanting to please him, wanting in some way to compensate. "To do so we have all of us passed, with little attention, through the great square outside, which the city fathers have renamed Mendlovo namesti in his honor. In the days of Gregor Mendel himself and for many years after, this square was simply known as the Klosterplatz, Monastery Square. Right into this century it lay on the edge of the town, between the Spielberg Hill and the water meadows along the banks of the River Svratka."
History lesson? they wonder. Urban planning? Museum policy within the context of a developing tourist trade, Heads nod. Eyes glaze. The entertainment is, perhaps, over. It is a warm day.
"The Klosterplatz was the place where fairs were held. There were booths where fire-eaters blew flames from their mouths and bears danced and pickpockets filched their living. It was also the place of freak shows, the kind of place where monsters were put on display, the kind of place where people with deformities were exhibited for all the world to gaze at in horror and revulsion and amusement. People like me..."
And they are lying in the palm of his hand like peas newly shelled from the pod.
"Conjoined twins, as well. Bearded ladies, certainly. Acromegalic giants, wart men, elephant men, children with sealy skin and flippers for arms, in fact the whole gamut of human deformity and disaster. And you, ladies and gentlemen, would have gone to stare. At people like me."
Silence. Is anyone so careless as to allow a pin to drop? Guilt is a palpable substance in the atmosphere, a vapor that irritates the air passages and stings the eyes. Although the squat figure on the podium watches them through phenotypically normal eyes (brown), nothing else about him is normal. His body is not normal, his face is not normal, his limbs are not normal. He possesses a massive fort forehead and blunt, puglike features. His nose is stove in at the bridge, his mouth and jaw protrude. His limbs are squat and bowed, his fingers are mere squabs. He is one meter, twenty-seven centimeters tall.
"It was Gregor Mendel who enabled us to understand all this, and, by understanding, bring acceptance of a kind. It was he who, contemplating his peas, saw within them those units of inheritable potency that, for better or for worse, we all of us possess. He was the Galileo of biology, seeing these moons for the first time, seeing them as clearly as we do today, although he had no instrument to aid him and nothing material on which to project his vision."
A sip of water, for the effect rather than for the thirst. His gestures are practiced, almost rehearsed. He is used to all this, aware of every movement in the hall, every cough, every whisper, every glance of every eye.
"Mendel spent eight years on his experiments with garden peas alone. By the end he had bred a grand total of about thirty-three thousand plants. He developed a rigorous, mathematical interpretation of his results, in the course of which, by implication, he predicted the haploid nature of gametes and the diploid nature of body cells, as well as the need for a reduction division in the production of gametes; and no one saw the significance. He was as great an experimenter as Louis Pasteur, an exact contemporary, and no one recognized the fact. He had a more acute, more focused mind than Charles Darwin, another exact contemporary, and no one listened. He was one of those men whose vision goes beyond what we can perceive with our eyes and touch with our hands, and no one shared his insight. The word insight is exact. Mendel had the same perception of nature as Pasteur, who could conceive of a virus without ever being able to see it, or Mendeleyev, who could conceive of elements that had not yet been discovered, or Thomson who could imagine particles yet smaller than the atom. Like them, Mendel looked through the surface of things deep into the fabric of nature, and he saw the atoms of inheritance as clearly as any Dalton or Rutherford saw the atoms of matter; and no one took any notice. He was a true visionary, where a man like Darwin was a mere workaday naturalist putting common sense observations into a hotchpotch, tautological theory that lacked rigor and precision, and bore, deep within itself, a fatal flaw. And no one took any notice. Mendel handed us our origins and our fate for the examining, and no one took any notice ..."
They applauded after the address, great tides of applause sweeping through the lecture theater; but you will forgive me if I say that I'm used to that. Inured to it, in fact. They would applaud anything that I did, you see--it's a way of assuaging that insidious sensation of guilt that they all feel.
Guilt? How can that be? It is no one's fault, is it? No one is to blame that I possess this stunted, contorted body, this hideous prison of flesh and flab and gristle. You can blame only the malign hand of chance...
Theirs is the guilt of the survivor.
The chairman rose to his feet, beaming like a circus ringmaster, and called them to silence. "I am sure all of us appreciate Ben's coming here and sharing his insights with us." He smiled down at me. People craned to see. "I hope he won't mind my saying that he is not only a great Mendelian but..." Did he really look to me for agreement? I fear that he did. "... also a very brave man. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Doctor Ben Lambert!"
A crescendo of applause, like the roar of rain on a tin roof. Photo flashes flickered like lightning in the storm. The ocean of people swayed and roared. They even lined up to shake my hand, as pilgrims might queue to kiss a statue of a martyr. Perhaps they were hoping that by such contact they might acquire something of my grace, that courage of which the chairman had spoken. The secretary of the association, Gravenstein by name, leaned over to endorse the chairman's praise. She was large and quivering, a mountain of concerned flesh shrouded in paisley cotton. "Gee, Ben, that's wonderful. So brave, so brave..."
Brave. That was the word of the moment. But I'd told Jean often enough. In order to be brave, you've got to have a choice.
There was an organized dinner in the restaurant of the hotel that evening, a ghastly affair with Moravian folk dancers and gypsy violins. A journalist from a local newspaper asked me questions--"What is the general thrust of your researches?" "Is it true that you express your ancestry in the pursuit of your inquiries?"--while Gravenstein and the chairman cosseted and protected me like a child. I was rescued by a call over the public address system: "Phone call for Doctor Lambert. There is a phone call for Doctor Lambert."
I escaped into the lobby. The hotel had been built before the curtain came down on the Czech People's Republic, and the lobby was as brash and shoddy as a station concourse. You expected to see train departure times on the bulletin board. It was almost a surprise to find instead the forthcoming events of the Mendel Symposium: a seminar at the university molecular biology department, a lecture on "The New Eugenies" by Doctor Benedict Lambert, a visit to the monastery library. Bookings were open for a trip to the Mendel birthplace, near Olomouc. Doctor Daniel Hartl of the George Washington University School Of Medicine would be wondering "What Did Gregor Mendel Think He Discovered?"
I reached up to tap on the reception desk. "There's a call for me. Telephone."
The receptionist peered over the edge. She had a widow's peak and attached earlobes. You notice such things. Your mind grows attuned to them. Brown eyes. Brown hair. Phenotypically normal. I saw the familiar expressions cross her face at the sight of me: surprise, revulsion, concern, one blending clumsily with the other and all pinned together with disbelief. "There is a call for a Doctor Lambert," she said.
"I'm Doctor Lambert."
"You are Doctor Lambert?"
"I am Doctor Lambert."
Disbelief almost won. She almost denied the fact. Then she shrugged and pointed to a row of booths beyond the fountain--"You take it over there"--and went back to filing her nails.
The telephone booth was stuffy and tobacco-stained, with a worse, nameless smell lurking in the corners. I had to stand on tiptoe to lift the receiver down. "Hello?"
A fragile voice, attenuated by distance, by the electrical connections, by anxiety, whispered in my ear. "Is that you, Ben?"
"Jean. Where are you?"
"At the hospital."
"They wanted me in early. My age or something. Everyone's being so nice..."
"Is it okays"
"They say it's fine."
"How did you get my number?"
A murmur and a twittering somewhere on the line. "I rang the Institute. Aren't you going to wish me lucks"
I told her that she didn't need it. I told her that luck didn't come into it. But I wished it just the same. Then I returned to the dinner, to the loud and various sounds of Gravenstein, to the fussing of the chairman and the cavorting of the folk dancers and the mindless questions of the reporter.
An Introduction to
Dr. Benedict Lambert is a top man in his field, a geneticist who has won the respect and admiration of his peers. He is also the object of less desirable attention—the stares, sometimes pitying, often horrified, of everyone he encounters. For Dr. Lambert is a dwarf: "His body is not normal, his limbs are not normal. He possesses a massive forehead and blunt, pug-like features . . . He is one meter, twenty-seven centimeters tall."
Ben's parents, of average height and, in fact, average in every way, care for him as best they can. His mother braves the gamut of modern medicine, taking Ben from pediatrician to orthopedist, neurologist to orthodontist, all the while assuring him that it is his inner self, not his outward appearance, that matters. His father, who witnessed a nuclear test as a young soldier and perhaps harbors a secret guilt, assumes a different approach. "Never throughout the whole of my life can I remember his looking directly at me," Ben recalls. "Always his glance was aslant, tangential, as though that way he might not notice."
His childhood memories evoke only one person apparently indifferent to his condition. For his Uncle Harry, Ben's genetic aberration is far overshadowed by another quirk of inheritance. According to the family history Harry devotedly preserves, Ben is the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel, the reclusive, brilliant Austrian friar who pioneered the study of genetics. While Ben shuns the implication that he shares his ancestor's "genius gene" as unscientific, his extraordinary intelligence does propel him along a pathway not open to the average sons of average people. He aces the entrance exam for the local grammar (public) school, goes on to earn a first class degree at Oxford, and is offered a job at the prestigious Royal Institute for Genetics. It takes only a brief negotiation to convince the Institute's market-savvy director to let him do research on the gene for achondroplasia (dwarfism). After all, as a real-life example of the arbitrariness of molecular biology other scientists can appreciate only second-hand, and related to the great Mendel, Ben presents an irresistible media opportunity. As the director notes with the lack of tact Ben has long grown inured to, "There's mileage in that. Might even get [the BBC] to do a documentary."
The desire to discover the genetic flaw that caused his condition may consume Ben in the laboratory, but other, less elevated, desires occupy his imagination. Though for obviously different reasons, Ben, like Mendel in his nineteenth-century monastery, is celibate. Resigned to intense love affairs with two-dimensional temptresses in Penthouse, Ben has just about given up on romance—until he enters the Institute's library and is greeted by Miss J. Piercey, the librarian from his home town. A kind, mousy woman, she had encouraged his early intellectual explorations and, quite innocently, fed his teen-age sexual fantasies. Miss Piercey—now the unhappily married Mrs. Miller—is eager to renew their friendship. Ben hopes for something more. Even the librarian's name—disguised by the neutral "J"—seems meant to stir a geneticist's heart. "I laughed when I discovered what the J stood for . . . Miss J. Piercey. Jean." For the first time in his life, fate is on his side, and Ben is soon enjoying pleasures of reciprocated love—as well as the thrills of flesh-and-blood sex. His own unexpected release from celibacy inspires Ben to look more closely at the private life of his genetic and intellectual forebear. Did Mendel also cherish "inappropriate" feelings? Struck by references in a biography to "a certain Frau Rotwang whom Mendel called upon frequently," Ben imagines the chaste, shy friar in the throes of forbidden love. The possibility that Mendel enjoyed the frequent company of a proper, married woman provides yet another link across generations, the imagined flirtation an old- fashioned variation of Ben's real and far lustier adventures with Jean.
Like a double helix, Mendel's Dwarf interweaves the nineteenth-century world of the genius whose work revolutionized modern biology and Ben's own late-twentieth-century existence and state of the art scientific explorations. Their success in untangling the mysteries of the "inheritable potency that, for better or worse, we all possess" resonates far beyond the achievements of two highly talented, eccentric researchers to raise profound questions about our definition of what constitutes normality.
Four years after Mendel began his seminal (literally and figuratively) study in 1856, the publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species galvanized the scientific community. According to Darwin, offspring are a blend of their parents. Because this reproductive pattern would obviously lead to less and less variation over a number of generations, Darwin attributed the dazzling variety within each species to an extremely high incidence of spontaneous mutation. Darwin, as Mendel's experiments show, was wrong. Charting the appearance of dominant and recessive traits in garden-variety plants, Mendel discovered consistent ratios in generation after generation, and lay bare the mechanics of inheritance with the clarity of a pure mathematical proof. Mutations, far from being an integral part of evolution, are the (usually unwelcome) outcome of pure chance. Published in an obscure scientific journal in 1865, Mendel's work—the pivotal discovery in the history of human biology—went unnoticed. A man genuinely ahead of his time, the reclusive friar had created the new science of eugenics.
The world eventually caught up, embracing Mendel's research with a passion and transforming it into a rallying cry for ensuring the survival of the fittest through all available political, social, and medical means. The evidence is everywhere—from U.S. immigration laws in the 1920s which excluded those of "inferior" genetic makeup (including Jews and Slavs) to the sterilization statutes on the books of twenty-nine U.S. states in the 1930s; from the creation of Germany's Society of Racial Hygiene in 1905 to Hitler's Final Solution. Auschwitz, where an obsession with the "purity of genes" was corrupted into horrific guidelines for mass destruction, is but a two-hour drive away from Mendel's home village in the north of Moravia.
The old eugenics died with the Third Reich—the term itself is eschewed by all right-thinking people—but the "inheritable potency that, for better or worse, we all possess" continues to intrigue. In our own time, to take one example, The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein purports to provide proof that black Africans are innately less intelligent than whites. As Ben wryly observes, their study demonstrates that "on average, black Africans are at the moment about as feebleminded as southern Europeans and Slavs and Jews were at the start of this century. Isn't it amazing what can happen in three generations?" The fact that genes code for protein, and that no protein can be biologically linked to intelligence, has conveniently escaped the notice of contemporary social critics intent on preserving the supremacy of "white civilization"—much as Mendel's own findings were ignored by the "enlightened" minds of his generation.
The emergence of a new eugenics (under the now politically correct name of genetics) is not confined to controversial books by pseudo-scientists, however. At a conference honoring him for identifying the genetic signal for achondroplasia, Ben spells it out: "Each year in the United States alone some thirty thousand babies are conceived by anonymous sperm donation. At the very least the donated sperm is certified to come from genetically healthy donors. At the worst it comes from William Shockley...Now you can choose your embryos and implant only healthy ones...more than theoretical interest to Ben. Reunited with a husband whose many inadequacies include infertility, Jean has convinced Ben to participate personally in this brave new world by helping her have the child she longs for. He has donated the sperm for the in vitro fertilization that results in eight embryos—half carrying the dominant gene for dwarfism, the others perfectly "normal"—and even selected the one Jean carries successfully to maturity. At the very moment Ben is addressing the conference, Jean is giving birth.
In Mendel's Dwarf, Simon Mawer, a biologist who has written three previous novels, chronicles the triumphs of science and the trials of love (and vice versa) with grace, humor, and unusual candor. The result is a riveting novel, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and chosen as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. "Call it a hybrid, call it a mutation," Melvin Jules Bukeit wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer, "it's a grand scientific adventure and a tragic human love story combined, as idiosyncratic and mysterious in its own way as the first gene formed out of cosmic dust."
What inspired you to explore the world of genetics through the eyes of a dwarf?
There are two reasons for this, the one purely technical, the other personal—I needed a sharp, clear genetic condition for my protagonist, and there is no genetic condition sharper or clearer than achondroplasia. It is caused by a simple point mutation, has virtually no environmental component to it, and is obvious in its effects. The personal reason is that some years ago I had a close friend who had the condition and of course memory of her brought the condition to mind.
How did your own experiences as a biologist influence the book? Why did you decide to express your ideas through fiction rather than non-fiction?
My experiences as a biologist obviously contributed to the biology. However, Mendel's Dwarf is a novel and I am, above all, a novelist. I feel, have always felt, that the real place to explore the human condition is through that most remarkable medium, the novel. I couldn't possibly have expressed my ideas any other way.
How much of the information about Mendel's life is historically accurate and how much is a product of your own imagination?
Little is known about Mendel's life beyond matters of rather plain fact. In that respect Mendel's Dwarf is factually accurate—dates, failure at his teaching examinations, the outline of his remarkable research, etc. However, the personal, affective side of Mendel's life is almost entirely unrecorded and therefore unknown to us and it is here that I allowed myself license. Just as I say in the book, Frau Rotwang is mentioned in one single line of the standard biography of Mendel; everything else about her is mine. However, an extraordinary thing about fiction is that it may reveal truths that a pursuit of facts can never unearth.
John Hawkes compared your novel to Beauty and the Beast and Kafka's Metamorphosis. In writing the novel, did you intentionally use elements of traditional fairy tales, and if so, why? Like Mendel, Kafka grew up in what is now the Czech Republic. In researching the background for Mendel's Dwarf, were you influenced by Kafka's dark, unsettling vision of the bizarre role chance plays in our lives?
I was no more influenced by Kafka than any writer is—and certainly not consciously so. Of course I was aware of the tradi-tional view of dwarfs in mythology and fairy tale and the circus; indeed I refer to all those in the book. But my main interest was in the idea of using a dwarf to speak for us all, because I feel that Benedict is very much an Everyman figure. He doesn't just speak for people with genetic disabilities, he speaks for you and me; because whether we like it or not, we are all victims of our genes and of the machinery that the genes have assembled for us.
Mendel's Dwarf is full of black humor, even farce. Did you do this for "entertainment" value alone, or does it serve another purpose?
I'm not sure what constitutes "entertainment value alone," and black humor is never merely for laughs—humor makes you sit up and take notice; it makes you weep the moment you've laughed; it raises the emotional stakes; it sharpens the knife.
Why did you include the actual details of Mendel's experiments, perhaps at the risk of alienating readers who have little or no scientific background?
Mendel was obsessive. He must have been obsessive to carry out the work he did without assistance, without encouragement, without support. In fact it's rather like writing a novel. I gave details of his work because I wanted to give a real flavor of that obsession.
In addition to science, your narrative is filled with references to history. Do you think there are dangerous parallels between the events in Europe during the Nazi period and what is going on in the former Yugoslavia and other areas torn by ethnic divisiveness today?
I think the historical prejudices to which some groups of people cling have been and are still one of the most dangerous forces in the world. Such prejudices are also entirely spurious and illusory because ethnic consciousness is invariably the creation of political ambition; not the other way round. So I am profoundly suspicious of appeals to nation, to race, or to culture, especially when such appeals are exclusive rather than inclusive. The most obvious thing about the whole Nazi nonsense is that its ideas were essentially absurd and yet a large part of a nation fell for them. We no longer believe in the concept of the Aryan race; why should we believe in "Serb" or "Hutu" or whatever other ethnic or racial flag is waved around? Or white or black, come to that.
You contrast Mendel's apparent indifference to the religious implications of his work to Darwin's attempts to reconcile religion and science. To what extent do you think each man's approach affected their theories about inherited traits and the public's willingness to accept them? Do you think it is possible for scientists to have faith in the unknowable?
I don't think Darwin did attempt to reconcile religion and science. He started out a potential clergyman and ended up a declared agnostic (a term, incidentally, that was invented by his supporter Huxley). I think Mendel might well have harbored similar doubts at times during his life, and indeed perhaps he would not have been an intelligent human being had he not done so. Both men saw Man's close affinity with the animal world, and in the context of a nineteenth-century religious life that might well have given rise to doubts in Mendel's mind just as it did in Darwin's. However, it is important to distinguish between belief in God as a means of explaining the complexities of nature, from belief in God on philosophical or metaphysical grounds. No scientist is justified in adopting the first kind of belief. Nature must be explained in terms of nature. But science will never make everything knowable, and will certainly never provide an explanation of why it is all here in the first place. Whether a particular belief in a particular God successfully does that is, of course, another matter.
In his speech at the scientific conference Benedict says "At least the old eugenics was governed by some kind of theory, however dreadful it may have been. The new eugenics, our eugenics, is governed only by the laws of the marketplace." If genetic research today is only motivated by brazen capitalism, what are the ramifications for society?
Market-place genetics? It's already with us. Already the gender ratio of some countries is being upset by sperm sorting and (more crudely) by the selective abortion of female fetuses. And notice how the technically more advanced method removes the moral problem. That's the trick. Make it all painless. The process is sold in the U.S. as "family balancing," a truly wonderful euphemism. Rest assured that choosing your baby's sex is just the beginning. The future?
Well consider for a moment what the mass-market has produced in television—mindless uniformity. Can we expect any better for the human genome once audience ratings rule there as well?
Posted January 21, 2000
I was drawn in by the idea of a narrative told by a dwarf, and found the storyline compelling and irresistable. The brutal honesty and self-disclosure of the protagonist kept me riveted. Since I admittedly have only the basic layman's knowledge of genetics, the ethical issues raised by the story seemed very thoughtful to me. But don't get me wrong: the story itself is what stays primary, sticking with you between readings and drawing you back in for what happens next. I suspect much of the story will stay with me for a long time.
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Posted May 11, 2005
A wonderful book. Great writing style and story. Not your typical fiction book. A great break from all the authors that churn out title after repetitive title.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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