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Mendels Dwarf
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Mendel's Dwarf
Simon Mawer
Crown Publishers

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 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."

"The baby...?"

"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
ISBN: 0-609-60106-7

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