Mendel’s Dwarf , by Simon Mawer

By Tara Ison

I’ve always had a thing for Gregor Mendel — the image of a cloistered and brown-cowl’d man, endlessly matchmaking pea plants in his monastery garden, seems very dear. Or, twisted: a sexually deprived man obsessed with stamens and pistils, manipulating dominant reds and recessive whites to create his hybrid-child pinks. I like the implicitly displaced longing involved, the warping of science into sex and back again. So, I jumped on a copy of Mendel’s Dwarf, a novel by English writer and biologist Simon Mawer. (There’s a pea plant and a naked woman on the cover, and I’m interested in dwarfs, too.)

Dr. Benedict Lambert, great-great-great-nephew to that dear, obsessive monk, is a modern-day genetics whiz, a famous scientist consumed by his own chromosomal quest: he is a dwarf, an achondroplasiac, "one meter, twenty-seven centimeters tall," determined to solve the genetic riddle of himself. He’s brilliant, cruel, touching, bitter, driven, lonely. And Benedict, like his ancestor, has a displaced longing, although explicit, for married librarian Jean (ok, that’s a bit cute), who he eventually gets to have great, Nabokovian-style sex with, and who, in a longing of her own, wanting to pass on his good genes, his brilliance, his kindness, his tall, tall character, begs him to father her child.

Mawer triple-helixes Benedict’s story, sequences of Mendelian and post-Mendelian/DNA genetics, and less-successful passages of fictional speculation on a maybe-romance between Mendel the Monk and a married noblewoman. We get Eugenics and Fascism, too, and the science of God, the mystery of sex, the biology of love. It’s an extraordinary, dizzying, and profound book.

Mawer’s next one, The Gospel of Judas, is coming April 2001. (Also, fellow Gregor Mendel fans: check out "The Behavior of the Hawkweeds," a short story by Andrea Barrett in the collection Ship Fever.