One of the many innovations that Ottakar's introduced was an intranet discussion board in which booksellers from Truro to Oban could exchange news and views. Sometimes it was a little disappointing - the notorious 'What's your favourite crisp flavour?' represented the board's nadir. However MD James Heneage was determined that the intranet should be 'anarchic' so that amongst the interminable threads about graphic novels there would also be an opportunity for innovation and intelligent discussion. One of the most heartening examples of this was a thread I initiated called 'Forgotten masterpieces.'
The thread asked booksellers to recommend titles that they felt were unjustly neglected and the response was amazing. So amazing, in fact, that Ottakar's decided to take the best suggestions and include them in a national campaign. Recommended titles included David Malouf's An Imaginary Life, Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, Antal Szerb's Journey by Moonlight, Jose Saramago's Blindness and Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn. I recommended the wonderful Journey by Moonlight and another book which, although it is published by Penguin, seems to elicit blank looks from most people: Jiri Weil's Life With a Star.
How can I describe this book if you don't know it? Imagine L'etranger written by a Czech Jew during the Second World War. Weil and Camus are very different writers, but these two novels have one thing in common: the narrator is passive and naive to the point of being one of Dostoyevsky's 'Holy fools'. In Life With a Star the main character, a bank clerk called Roubicek, relates how his rights are gradually being eroded by the occupying Nazis:
'From now on you mustn't appear outdoors without a star, I hope I don't have to tell you what would happen to you.' 'You have to stitch down the corners of the star and wear it on the left side, directly over your heart, not any higher or lower. There are very strict regulations about this.'
He handed me a piece of rayon material. 'You mustn't get it dirty.'
I went home and stitched the tips of the star with a needle and thread. There were six tips and a word on the star, all contorted and twisted, in a foreign language that seemed to make a face at me.
I went out the next day. After all, I had to go shopping. I saw people looking at me. At first it seemed as though my shoelaces were untied or that there was something wrong with my clothes. In some way I had upset the everyday, accepted order of things. And I was alone among other people, completely alone, because people would make way for me. I was no longer one of them.
'Hello Sheriff!' a boy called to me. And everyone laughed, but I knew that they weren't laughing at me. I laughed too.'
Thanks to Ottakar's, I was able to introduce this book to hundreds of new readers, but I think that this novel deserves thousands.