Mendels Dwarf , by Simon Mawer
By Tara Ison
Ive always had a
thing for Gregor Mendel the image of a cloistered and brown-cowld
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 Mendels Dwarf,
a novel by English writer and biologist Simon Mawer. (Theres a pea plant
and a naked woman on the cover, and Im interested in dwarfs,
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. Hes brilliant, cruel, touching, bitter, driven, lonely. And Benedict, like his ancestor, has a displaced longing, although explicit, for married librarian Jean (ok, thats 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 Benedicts
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. Its an extraordinary,
dizzying, and profound book.
Mawers 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.