The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1984)
by Jose Saramago
Like many other non-English language authors in the 1001 Books list, Saramago really nailed down his English language audience with a Nobel Prize for Literature win, in 1998. Before then he was obviously highly regarded, but not an instant success- The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis wasn't published in English translation until 1991. I've read that Saramago is often grouped as a magical realist, but The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is heavy on the realism and contains no magic whatsoever. Rather, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is about the man in the title, a Brazilian doctor of Portuguese citizenship, who returns home to Lisbon, 16 years after his departure, with Europe on the cusp of World War II.
Portugal at the time had already established it's own authoritarian government, headed by Antonio Salazar. Salazar was pro-Franco, even before Franco existed, and he was able to keep Portugal neutral during the Second World War. Ricardo Reis does very little during the year of his death. He seduces a char woman and woos a young woman from an upper class family. He takes long walks, fills in for another doctor who is sick, and reads the newspaper, from which he learns of the events sending Europe spiraling towards the Second World War. The only "action" in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis is a scene where he is gently interrogated by the Portuguese police. Also, he knocks up the charwoman, but that is about it.
My favorite portions of this book were Saramago's description of the char woman cleaning Reis' apartment and then falling into his arms for bouts of passionate love making, a circumstance which reminded me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry starts sleeping with a woman he met while she was cleaning his apartment.