THE CAULIFLOWER by Nicola Barker is a lyrical, sly book that delighted me for an entire week. It purports to tell the life story of Sri Ramakrishna, an Indian priest and ecstatic mystic of the 19th Century. It has a peculiar, tangential relationship to the truth of the man’s life. It creates strangeness where there was none — the mysterious female tantric guru who taught him did in fact have a real name, contrary to her fabulated appearance in the book – but there’s a point to it all.
Nicola Barker is telling the story of Ramakrishna, “Uncle,” as fable, the fable that history becomes when looked at from across the ages. Which is why it’s also a science fiction story. Cauliflower is a brand name. There’s a sequence seen from the perspective of a time-jumped camera hung around the neck of a bird.
(There’s also a sequence done as a film shoot located on the mud flats around Canvey Island, out here on the Thames Delta. It’s that kind of book.)
It’s told brilliantly, as a stream of short chapters examining the man’s life. Ramakrishna appears to be quite mad, but also appears to have supernatural capabilities, all of which we can hold in the same frame because of the fable-like telling of the story — Uncle’s obvious seizures and autistic outbursts are on the same level of reality as his mind-reading. It also tells an equally wonderful story, of “the Rani,” an Indian widow who becomes a figure of female power and rebellion, fiercely intelligent and beautifully immovable.
It’s one of those books that has those fantastic wandering routes that I love, drifting off the main road into discursive passages about the origins of the name “Calcutta/Kolkata,” for instance. It’s very non-linear, and you won’t care, because you’re being taken on a dance through history, language, culture, faith, aphorism, insanity and a constant heat of invention. Terrific book.