‘The Cauliflower®’ has been one of the more hotly anticipated novels of this spring. Nicola Barker has made a name for herself as an inventive and irreverent author, so her take on the life of the nineteenth century guru Sri Ramakrishna promised to be anything but a conventional historical biography.
With all the ambition you would expect from such a lauded writer, Barker approaches this fascinating life story with a focus on tone rather than clear-cut history. Above all, we’re told that ‘Uncle’ is charming, mysterious and playful. While he may not charm the reader as he does his chroniclers, and while his mysteries may be too secretive to ever be fully understood, his playfulness takes over the whole book. In an afterward, Barker writes:
‘I have not lived in the nineteenth century. I have never met Sri Ramakrishna. I am not a practising Hindu. I have never visited Calcutta. If I had, I probably could not have written this book. I wouldn’t have been stupid, arrogant, brave, naughty – and possibly even dispassionate – enough. This novel is a small (even pitiable) attempt to understand how faith works, how a legacy develops, how a spiritual history is written. I have been fascinated by Sri Ramakrishna for much of my life. He’s such a perplexing and joyous character. And I felt that his story might benefit from being told again – shared, enjoyed, celebrated (especially now) – but from a slightly new (and, yes, vaguely warped) perspective.’
The playfulness of the afterward is of a piece with the story that precedes it. We only ever know Sri Ramakrishna through those who surround him, from his adoring and possessive nephew to his interactions with a series of rich patrons. Of course, there is nothing unconventional about this, however it is less usual for the narrator to play quite so much with our historical view of events. The book begins with a view of the guru’s first patron, ‘The beautiful Rani Rashmoni is perpetually trapped inside the celluloid version of her own amazing and dramatic life.’ It’s an audacious way to present the nineteenth century entrepreneur. In a commentary on celebrity, voyeurism and probably a lot of other ideas too, virtual cameras play a central role in Rani’s narrative. Take the audacious birds-eye view of the temple she builds:
‘Perhaps, rather than relying on the little swift’s eye and limited brain-capacity (not to mention its fractured swift thoughts of ‘safe … DANGER … left, right, SWOOP, avoid, quick, BIG, empty, light, dark, hungry, mosquito … ‘ etc.) we should attach a tiny camera to our circa 1855 Indian swift’s compact torso and proceed gingerly on that basis. Let’s catch one. Go fetch your butterfly net. This shouldn’t be too difficult because the circa 1855 Indian swift is quite silly and highly accident-prone…
Excellent! In the blink of an eye the job is done. A miraculously tough but tiny and portable technology is deftly applied, suspended (on a modern twine as flexible, light and strong as a spider’s silk) so as to hang at the bird’s throat, just under its beak. We will observe that we have even coordinated it with the circa 1855 Indian swift’s greenish-black plumage, and if you look especially close (with the aid of a magnifying glass, perhaps) you will see our tiny Cauliflower® logo exquisitely painted just below the camera’s lens.’
The book is made up of such games. Appropriate enough given the joyful, childish nature of the man it presents, the narrative itself requires a reader to admire it on its own terms. Genuinely informative (though always with a keen eye for the ridiculous) and consistently unexpected this may not be a book for everyone, but those who embrace its inventive spirit will find it a highly enjoyable read. An ironically self-referential exploration of a figure whose religion aspires to the obliteration of the self, ‘The Cauliflower®’ is very much a book for our times and one that I suspect will find many fans among lovers of highly self-conscious literature.
I received my copy of ‘The Cauliflower®’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.