Even if you’ve not already read one of Nicola Barker’s novels you’ll gather from its cover – and perhaps its title – that you’re going to be in for a wacky ride with The Cauliflower®. It’s born of Barker’s fascination with Sri Ramakrishna – an avatar, widely regarded as having played a leading role in reviving Hinduism, influencing both Gandhi and Nehru – which has its roots in a free album about Krishna Consciousness which she was handed aged ten in a shopping plaza. Many of us, I’m sure, have waved these offerings away, wary of being drawn into an attempt at conversion but if Barker had followed that line we wouldn’t have this extraordinarily inventive, idiosyncratic interpretation of the avatar’s sketchy story.
Pointless to attempt a detailed synopsis of The Cauliflower®. Suffice to say that it’s Barker’s version of the life of a nineteenth-century man who came to be regarded as a saint thanks to the patronage of a powerful, wealthy woman known as the Rani. As a sunny-natured child, Sri Ramakrishna is given to falling into sudden trances. He eventually becomes a priest, taking up residence at the temple supported by the Rani and her son-in-law who conceives a spiritual infatuation for him. As Sri Ramakrishna’s trances become more frequent, apparently triggered by religious experiences, he attracts a devoted following and eventually is pronounced a saint. Over twenty-five years he’s both cared for and watched in loving frustration by his nephew Hridayram who would dearly love to tread his own spiritual path instead of playing nursemaid to his uncle on the journey which will see him behaving like an ape for the year he espouses Hanuman the monkey-god, dressing as a woman for his goddess Radha period and mastering Tantra, thanks to an orange-robed brahimini whom Hridayram detests.
There are two narrative strands running through Barker’s novel, neither chronological: one is told through the voice of the put-upon but devoted Hridayram, the other is Sri Ramakrishna’s story as told by the author of The Cauliflower®. Barker punctuates her novel with haiku and extracts from the Song of Solomon together with a multitude of diversions and devices – from recounting dreams to imagining the goings-on in the temple through the eyes of a swift equipped with a tiny camera – frequently pulling the rug out from underneath her readers’ feet, contradicting and questioning what has gone before. It’s often very funny not to mention vivid. Kali, the goddess to whom Sri Ramakrishna devotes himself, is described as an ‘all-singing, dervish-dancing, ecstatically stomping, bloody-sword-wielding Beyoncé Knowles’. Barker has clearly researched her subject long and hard – there’s a bibliography accompanied by enthusiastic recommendations – but, as she’s the first to admit, this is not a biography of Sri Ramakrishna. In her own words it’s ‘a painstakingly constructed, slightly mischievous and occasionally provocative/chaotic mosaic of many other people’s thoughts, memories and experiences’. Apart from one very irritating passage – too many ‘parp-parps’, if you’re interested – it worked beautifully for me but it’s a Marmite novel, no doubt about it.