Justin Cartwright

The last word

The bizarre story of the guru Sri Ramakrishna and his feuding entourage is full of sly charm and astonishing vitality

Nicola Barker is both prodigiously talented and admirably fearless. I have loved her books. But for some time I had little or no idea what the point of the story of Sri Ramakrishna was. In fact he was one of the outstanding men of 19th-century India. Characteristically of Barker, the narrative of her latest book is interlaced with little jokes and haikus and sly references to contemporary language and manners. (There is even an excursion to the Camargue.) At first I found the whole enterprise repetitive and wilfully quixotic, but it is well worth persevering.

Barker describes her book as ‘truly little more than the sum of its many parts’. It turns out to be far more than that; a freehand, jokey sort of spiritual journey, an admiration and a parody of faith, orchestrated by Barker with an unfailing eye for the comic opportunity. She is not a practising Hindu, but she is fascinated by the phenomenon of faith, which is so pervasive in India. The bibliography helps enormously in understanding how Barker has made this complex, funny book. At one time in the narrative someone — perhaps Barker — is making a film. When she looks back at the processed film there is not a single image to be seen. I have no idea what this signifies. The Cauliflower® is not strictly a novel, as Barker says in her indispensable afterword.

I read gamely on, struggling with the story about Rani, about Uncle, about Pratap Chandra Hazra and Hriday and Sri Ramakrishna, which involved endless accounts of meals and feuds and spiritual achievements and rivalries and all manner of illnesses and trances. Then I discovered Barker’s afterword. I recommend reading this first, in order to orientate yourself in very dense and whimsical territory.

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