The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker

The Cauliflower is an extraordinary book. Delving back and forth across time, playing with different points of view and different ways of delivering the narrative, the novel takes its name from an anecdote about Sri Ramakrishna, the great guru of Calcutta, who sees god in everything, even the cauliflower.

The book is about the life of Sri Ramakrishna and his life is as playful as Nicola Barker’s delivery. Surrounding Sri Ramakrishna are an interesting cast of characters, the Rani, her favourite son-in-law, Ramakrishna’s nephews, his wife, his mother, and even briefly Mother Teresa.

I admire the novel’s skittish artfulness; I can see how this mirrors and plays with the idea of worship that Sri Ramakrishna exemplifies. I can feel the frenzied ecstasy of Sri Ramakrishna’s spiritual swoons. However, it isn’t always a novel that is easy to read, partly for exactly the reasons that I enjoy and admire it. In particular I find the moments reenacted as part of a contemporary film too self-conscious. There is a sense in which representing his life requires a fresh and playful approach but the novel also constantly sets Sri Ramakrishna’s spirituality against rational worldly interpretations, and the difficulty of reassembling truth from widely differing historical accounts and interpretations and this is a very clever, difficult balancing act to pull off.

It’s hard to imagine what it means to be a holy man in the 19th century devoting your life to god in the Hindu tradition and Nicola Barker gives me a very clear impression of what that might be like. If this intrigues you, you will delight in this book that does its best to entrance the reader in Kali’s transcendence of opposites. Like fire she burns, it is only our interpretation that makes this fire burn for good or ill.

This coming week I’ll be reading Zero K by Don Delillo.

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