As a writer, Nicola Barker is just one of a small number of genuine geniuses. Darkmans remains one of the finest novels about England ever, and she’s managed, in her output to write strange folk tales, full on sex comedies, and now, the biography of an Indian Guru. Has moving from traditionally English territory marred her capacity for great, compelling, and hilarious writing? Has she somehow lost her experimental tendencies? Nope. The Cauliflower is quintessential Barker, and is all the better for it. It’s also got a bunch of haikus in it. A whole bunch of them.
Trying to pin down the story of The Cauliflower isn’t too difficult. Barker’s novel tells the story of the life of Sri Ramakrishna, a real historical figure who, in the 19th century became a much admired guru. But Barker’s approach isn’t the one you’d expect for a biographical novel. The story is described as a kaleidoscope, a fractured narrative which mixes newspaper extracts, traditional chapters (many from the perspective of Hriday, Ramakrishna’s nephew/servant/biggest fan), stage dialogue from a screenplay about Ramakrishna, several bible verses, and yes, haikus. It can, at first throw you as a reader and the novel certainly takes a while to settle. Like all of Barker’s best novels, this is one you have to readjust your thinking for.
It sounds like a pretentious mess doesn’t it? A whole bunch of different styles, poetry, bible verses, a screenplay; but it works. The novel is one big distancing tactic. Where we would expect a biography, or even an historical novel to work is in getting us closer to the figures, allowing us inside their heads, giving us the ability to understand them. But The Cauliflower does the opposite. Here’s a diary entry. Here’s a short parable. Here are a handful of quotes. Here’s a chapter about him eating a mango. Who is this person? What kind of a man was he? We’ll never know, and that’s the point. Here was a man who was deified by thousands. A man who was worshipped as the incarnation of a god. As Barker says, midway through the book:
“Oh which of us can truly comprehend the divine play of Sri Ramakrishna? Is he man or child? Leader or follower? Masculine of feminine?…Who the heck was Sri Sri Ramakrishna? Eh? Eh?”
This is a book about how we can never really know the people we put on a pedestal, about how if you call a person god, how can they be written about as just a mere person anymore? That’s the genius of The Cauliflower, and it’s something that very few writers can get away with.
Any Cop?: It’s another terrific novel from Nicola Barker. As an experiment in structure and form it’s fascinating, but as an exploration of the life of someone we could never hope to understand, it’s absolutely essential.