All the Names, by José Saramago (1997)

Saramago published this book at the age of 75, the year before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He’s the sort of writer who gets described as “important”, but while I’d heard the name before I’d never read anything by him until now. This novel, about an ageing low level clerk at the central registry of an unnamed city, is the sort of book that would be a perfect candidate for treatment as a slow European film with subtitles and sparse dialogue but a strong sense of place. In fact, it’s almost short enough to be called a novella, and it’s structured like a classic short story, by which I mean that instead of lengthy character development we get people constructed largely out of stereotypes, and a central character who will have time for one episode that permanently changes their outlook on life. Here, we watch our protagonist in his Quixotic extracurricular quest to learn about the private life of a young woman whose file he has come across by accident, in which (unsurprisingly) he learns more about himself than about his erstwhile subject. A fine, literary novel; not what you’d call “fast paced” or “adventure packed”, but this is the sort of thing grad students will still be reading decades from now, as opposed to the supermarket checkout bestseller-of-the-week.