Tirdad Zolghadr, Softcore, Telegram Books, 2007
Tirdad Zolghadr’s debut novel tells the story of the Promessa nightclub in Tehran, once a glamorous cocktail bar of the 70s and soon to be reopened as a heady mix of art, fashion and culture. Narrated by an art-enthusiast who soon finds himself locked into a complex political detective story, Softcore traces the story of modern-day Iran with wit and panache.
Given the timeliness of Zolghadr’s novel, it is likely that media responses to this book will be divided between adoration and hostility. Perhaps with both of these attitudes in mind, Zolghadr delights in his use of a cheeky, bold narrative voice. There is no doubting Softcore’s offer of a fresh, unique glimpse of Iran – itself a considerable feat, given the relentless scrutiny under which it has been placed in recent years.
The vibrant and colourful energy emitting from Softcore is, from the beginning, utterly charming, and one cannot help but be instantly seduced by it. Such feelings might soon wear off, however; Zolghadr does, on occasion, cross the line between playfulness and irritating hyperactivity. The persistent namedropping, which tries hard to be achingly hip and subversive, ultimately feels like unbearably pretentious student irony. At the aftershow party for a New Order concert, “everyone was disguised as their favourite song, and there was this guy disguised as ‘The Octopus’ Garden’, and it took me an hour to realise it was Edward Said.” Similarly, the constant and conspicuous use of brand-named products, both local and global, lead one to wonder if Zolghadr’s book was in any way funded by product placement.
Far more subtle, and altogether more pleasing, are traces of Softcore’s considerable literary heritage. When our narrator is arrested, imprisoned and interrogated, his cool, cynical attitude is only a few shades away from the unblinking passiveness of The Trial’s Josef K. Meanwhile, the narrator’s fond retelling of his family history, itself acting as a delightful parallel of Iran’s character, evokes Gunter Grass’ seminal account of Nazi Germany, The Tin Drum. These are some serious literary precedents to reach, and even if he doesn’t quite hit the same standards, Zolghadr makes a damn good try at it. In the end, though, the political and cultural resonance of Softcore is sacrificed for the sake of a witty, entertaining read. Zolghadr makes some very convincing, thought-provoking political noises, but we are never made to plod wearily through heavy theoretical drudgery. Rather the reverse, in fact: readers are led, skipping breezily, through the novel by a brisk and zesty narrative voice.
It seems a shame that it cannot maintain such nimble weightlessness for the entire novel; there are moments when one cannot help cringing at the many attempts to capture varied fragments of our pop culture. Nonetheless, it’s these touches, however profligate, which make Softcore such a sharp and well-timed novel. Perhaps it won’t help Zolghadr’s fortunes five years on – one senses that this book will date relatively quickly – but it’s a very worthwhile read for now. And after that? The state of Iranian satire may evolve, but you can bet that a writer as talented and on-the-pulse as Zolghadr will be one step behind.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Charlotte Stretch lives in Brixton where she is a freelance writer and an editor of 3:AM. She is currently working on her first novel.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 15th, 2007.