March 20, 1998
Web posted at: 5:20 p.m. EDT (1720 GMT)
Benedict Lambert wants to know why he is a dwarf. He is subject to the usual preconceived notions by tall people. Most believe him to be a circus performer.
But Lambert is actually a geneticist, trying to discover the DNA code that made him a dwarf.
Lambert's girlfriend loves him on the inside but is repulsed by his small body.
Winner of the 1989 Kitterick Prize, Simon Mawer does not fail to engage the reader with with 'Mendel's Dwarf.'
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
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
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
I reached up to tap on the reception desk. "There's a call for
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.
(C) 1998 Simon Mawer
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