But it was Mendel’s Dwarf that saw him come into his own as a writer. A dozen years on, his voice still lifts when he talks about it. The novel—which tells the story of the molecular biologist Benedict Lambert, great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel, who suffers from achondroplasia (dwarfism)—tackles science with tools that have become hallmarks of his writing: multiple timelines; an exploitation of the slippages and spaces between languages; a fascination with memory. ‘I’m distant enough from it now to say it’s a bloody good book,’ he grins. ‘I was fascinated by Mendel, but he led a fairly dull life, if intellectually extraordinary. So I had Lambert tell Mendel’s story while telling his own. It clearly wasn’t going to be a biography . . . I’m a novelist. I don’t want to tell the truth. I want to manipulate things as I choose. I want to lie.’
Photo: HN – Lukáš Bíba
Mendel’s Dwarf is an unusual piece. It’s a work of science fiction in the strict sense, but without any of the familiar traits of the genre. It is scientific literature in the literary sense but not the scholarly one; it’s a novel with footnotes that is in a hurry. Its narrator annotates his text with references because he is a scientist and that is how scientists write. But they do not write with the overtone of horror, and the unmistakable implication of looming disaster, that Simon Mawer sustains throughout his story.
The May BookTalk event will focus on Man Booker shortlisted author Simon Mawer’s controversial novel Mendel’s Dwarf, which weaves together a reimagining of the life of Gregor Mendel, the father of genetic science, with contemporary geneticist Benedict Lambert, who is both a dwarf with achondroplasia and a distant relation of Mendel.
The second of our relaunched BookTalk events took place on 9 July 2015, and focused on JM Coetzee’s Booker-prize winning novel, Disgrace (1999), set in post-apartheid South Africa.