A report by Robert Lloyd on the fifth BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 3 May 2016: Simon Mawer’s Mendel’s Dwarf. Our latest BookTalk event focused on Simon Mawer’s Mendel’s Dwarf, a novel about identity as seen through the lens of genetic … Continue reading Simon Mawer’s Mendel’s Dwarf: Event Review
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 cleft¹ and normal, hair curly² and straight, eyes blue³ and brown and green, skins white, brown, yellow, and black,4 crania bald5 and hirsute. It is almost as though the organisers (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.
¹ autosomal dominant
² autosomal dominant
³ autosomal recessive, probably controlled by genes at two different loci
4 polygenic control
5 sex-limited autosomal dominant
— Simon Mawer, Mendel’s Dwarf (Abacus, 2011 ), pp. 1–2
But it was Mendel’s Dwarf that saw him come into his own as a writer. A dozen years on, his voice still lifts when he talks about it. The novel—which tells the story of the molecular biologist Benedict Lambert, great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel, who suffers from achondroplasia (dwarfism)—tackles science with tools that have become hallmarks of his writing: multiple timelines; an exploitation of the slippages and spaces between languages; a fascination with memory. ‘I’m distant enough from it now to say it’s a bloody good book,’ he grins. ‘I was fascinated by Mendel, but he led a fairly dull life, if intellectually extraordinary. So I had Lambert tell Mendel’s story while telling his own. It clearly wasn’t going to be a biography . . . I’m a novelist. I don’t want to tell the truth. I want to manipulate things as I choose. I want to lie.’
Photo: HN – Lukáš Bíba
Mendel’s Dwarf is an unusual piece. It’s a work of science fiction in the strict sense, but without any of the familiar traits of the genre. It is scientific literature in the literary sense but not the scholarly one; it’s a novel with footnotes that is in a hurry. Its narrator annotates his text with references because he is a scientist and that is how scientists write. But they do not write with the overtone of horror, and the unmistakable implication of looming disaster, that Simon Mawer sustains throughout his story.
The May BookTalk event will focus on Man Booker shortlisted author Simon Mawer’s controversial novel Mendel’s Dwarf, which weaves together a reimagining of the life of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetic science, with contemporary geneticist Benedict Lambert, who is both a dwarf with achondroplasia and a distant relation of Mendel.
A report by Catherine Paula Han on the fourth BookTalk of the 2015/16 season, which took place on 7 March 2016: Meet the Authors—Gaynor Arnold and John Harding.
Current Cardiff undergraduate Caitlin Coxon offers some thoughts on Florence and Giles, one of the books featured in our March BookTalk event.