A biography of a 19th-century Bengali mystic, complete with haikus – and emoticons

The Cauliflower® could only have been written by Nicola Barker's bitingly intelligent mind. How else could such a zany novel still provide deep insights into faith?

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This is a biographical novel about Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (1836-86), the Bengali mystic whose inclusive religious teachings were the basis for the international Ramakrishna Movement. But it has Nicola Barker’s name on the cover, so this biographical novel about Sri Ramakrishna also involves, in no particular order, slapstick comedy, cheery little haikus, smiley and sad-face emoticons, the recollections of an American transgender man in the Sixties, bleeding chunks of Dickens and the Bible, historico-academic prattle, reflections on the life of Mother Teresa, insults directed at the author by characters who accuse her of being a coloniser, a collagist and a “skid-mark”, and an episode in which the narrator fixes a camera to a bird that is then attacked by a hawk, shot with a catapult, thrown in a river and eaten by a catfish.

For every reader whose eyes narrowed with suspicion at that sentence, there are likely to be several fans of Barker’s writing nodding in delighted recognition. Here, as everywhere else in her work, this most brilliantly unhinged of British writers does whatever the hell she likes, and the consequences are alternately illuminating, tiresome, joyful, exhausting and hilarious.

Born into a poor Brahmin family in West Bengal, Ramakrishna was prone from childhood to fits of trancelike ecstasy that became more frequent when he succeeded his brother as priest of a temple to Kali near Calcutta, as it then was. In subsequent years, he worked his way through many of the main Hindu schools of worship and religious practice, as well as Islam, Christianity, kundalini yoga and tantric thought. By the time of his death from throat cancer in 1886, his mode of inclusive spirituality was venerated not only by his own monks and disciples, but by a wide section of admirers from across Indian society.

Certain features of Ramakrishna’s life confused many observers at the time, and are scarcely less confusing now. Besides his asceticism, his frequent trances and the mystical practices he observed as part of the tantric left-hand path (eating rotten meat, worshipping with human skulls and behaving, in his words, “like a child, like a madman, like a ghoul and like an inert thing”), he was also fond of cross-dressing, preached fervently against “women and gold” and at one stage imitated the monkey-god Hanuman, fixing a tail to his back. Controversially, he also taught that all religions were paths to the same truth, and that anyone could experience divinity if he or she longed sufficiently for it.

Explaining the religious impulses that drove Ramakrishna and the spiritual context in which he existed is a ferociously tall order for a Western novelist writing in English. Paradoxically, it is Barker’s enthusiastic acceptance of this that makes her book such a delight. Although the fizzing variety of literary devices on show will be familiar to readers of her previous work, they feel a particularly good fit for a topic as elusive, roundabout and mysterious as this one. Whether Barker is writing from the perspective of Ramakrishna’s frustrated nephew and minder Hriday (“Perhaps I should never leave Uncle’s side, and then the doubts will finally be dispelled?”) or ventriloquising, with light mockery, a 21st-century authorial voice fond of theoretical buzzwords (“This is a liminal space, an air-bubble within history . . .”), her narrative is constantly on the move, shifting between rational and mystical perspectives, sliding away from single interpretations.

The approach works in a more straightforward sense, too. Ramakrishna had a puckish sense of humour, and his stories and parables, related to his acolytes in demotic Bengali, have an amused edge to which the novel’s crazy-wisdom style pays implicit homage. “He is funny,” Barker writes. “He sings, he dances, he cracks jokes. He can be a bitch. He can be terse. He is an exceptionally droll impersonator.” After his death, one of his acolytes mused (I quote the comment as Barker gives it, in the form of a haiku):

We were trained by him
Without even knowing it –
Just through fun and games!

Despite the authorial self-sabotage that features so often in Barker’s fiction – one character in her 2014 novel, In the Approaches, knows he’s in a book and keeps complaining strenuously about how badly the author has written it – this is a deeply researched piece, whose fascinated impetuosity and esoteric mode of address still transmit a vast quantity of information about the guru and his life. The book, Barker writes, is “a small (even pitiable) attempt to understand how faith works, how a legacy develops, how a spiritual history is written”.

Granted, the approach won’t work for everyone. The Cauliflower® is a book of fragments that proceeds in circles through the lives of its characters, gleefully refusing most of the conventional satisfactions of novelism and biography. Its chronology is in bits, its characters fuzzy, its facts sunk in unreliable narration, its conclusions up for debate. Sometimes it drags. Sometimes the jokes don’t land. To the right reader, however, these will be matters of supreme irrelevance, because watching Barker’s garrulous, profound, silly and bitingly intelligent mind at play is one of the greatest and most contagious delights in modern British fiction. I, for one, am struggling not to finish this review with a smiley emoticon.

The Cauliflower® by Nicola Barker is published by William Heinemann (336pp, £16.99)

This article appears in the 12 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump

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