Mendel’s Dwarf: Part One Of Two

Simon Mawer’s novel Mendel’s Dwarf is that potentially most annoying of things. A parallel narrative, where both generally unrelated storylines unfold, taking space, time and momentum from the other. Here the split is between a simplistic but thorough subjective account of the biologist Gregor Mendel’s life, and that of our fictional modern day narrator. The subjectivity through which Mendel’s life is shot is through the viewpoint character, Dr Benedict Lambert – a dwarf molecular biologist.

I’m going to talk about the Mendel bit on Proven By Science, here I am more interested in the shorthand of disability, disfigurement or difference in the novel. It is clear from the first page (a well dramatised satire fo the reaction of an academic conference) that Lambert is a dwarf. It is clear from the jacket blurb to be fair. And this introductory satire also runs us through the usual responses to difference. Horror, sympathy, over-compensation, rudeness. The interesting point being that these reactions come before the character opens his mouth and has even presents his personality. Ironically of course it is these reaction which help shape the character, you are always a victim of your situation. A good phrase, used more than one in the book beause Mawer probably recognised its soundbite potential, is ‘It isn’t brave unless you have a choice’.

All that said, can we distinguish the authors voice fromt he characters voice. Mawer is not a dwarf, just as Mark Haddon does not have Aspergers Syndrome. Who is he to imagineer such a character, and what of authenticity. It strikes me that whilst this is a gnarly question, it really does not matter. Fiction is all about imagination, the problem perhaps arises if Lambert is seen as emblematic of all dwarfs. Similar questions were raised about the film The Station Agent, there Fin does not represent the dwarf experience – but where are our alternatives. Time Bandits? It is and has always been too simplistic to say that under the skin all people are the same. We are the sum of our experiences, unfortunately mixed up with different reactions to those experiences.

Mawer complicates things in Mendel’s Dwarf by making Lambert a relative of Mendel. Our fictional character is related to a real one, the real one whose biography the fictional one is telling. Dr Benedict Lambert is not real, what he does in the book did not happen (though the genetic research mentioned has now been done), to what extent can he represent what it is to be a dwarf. I’m 5’2″ and there was a resonance even with being slightly shorter than the average. Even if he is miles out, the whole thing manages to have an effect. That’s good enough.