Softcore by Tirdad Zolghadr

In Softcore a first-person narrator, annoyingly also named Tirday Zolghadr, relates the weeks and days before the opening of a new and arty nightclub in contemporary Tehran, interspersed with his remembrances of earlier times in and around Iran’s capital city. The book has some funny bits, such as a running gag about the splittist tendencies of Iranian leftist groups; at one point a friend of the narrator’s sums up the banalization of the many public portraits of Iran’s revolutionary martyrs, “It used to be art, now it’s Burger King.”

Softcore by Tordad Zolghadr

Unfortunately, the narrator is himself increasingly unable to distinguish between provocative art and banal gestures, even if they are banal gestures that fleetingly catch the fancy of art journalists and buyers. The narrator is ostensibly a curator — a profession he shares with the author, along with many other personal details — and in many ways the night club is very much like an exhibition that he is planning and curating. He does not find an overarching theme for the club and constantly toys with different visuals, presentations, and artworks that he considers for the opening night.

Insertion of the author as the leading character in a novel is a pet peeve, and I was sorry to see it happening in Softcore. Nearly 18 years ago, I wrote “How many times does one have to encounter the device of inserting the author into the fiction before it becomes tiresome? For me the answer was twice, and I read both of them more than a decade before [late 2004].” Softcore does not really do anything new with the author as character, though maybe it will be a novelty for some readers and lead them to speculate about the boundaries between fiction and reality.

Zolghadr is good with describing moment by moment flows of events, he is good at evoking moods and characters with quick sketches. I like how his narrator champions Tehran’s suburbs and invites readers into the life that’s teeming in modernist high-rise neighborhoods. In a series that’s set in global metropoles, it’s good to see more than just the historic centers and obvious locations being given center stage. I enjoyed the anecdotes about Iran before the Islamic Revolution, and even liked some of the author-narrator’s casual cynicism about how the old aristocracy got where it was. He’s also good at showing how a government that claims to be revolutionary can hardly sustain that claim forty years later.

The author is not shy about showing the author-narrator as a vain, lazy, selfish, pseudo-intellectual jerk. He details the care that the narrator takes with bodily upkeep, and the nearly religious ritual of replenishing his stocks of consumer body-care products. He describes how the narrator plagiarizes parts of his grant applications and invents other parts out of whole cloth. In preparation for the opening, the narrator is supposed to communicate to interested people and potential financial supporters what he thinks he is doing. Zolghadr the narrator is faking it all the way down. The only characters who come close to making good art are women artists he knows and, not incidentally, tries to get in the sack with. Whether he succeeds or not, he treats them badly.

Softcore also contains hints of political intrigue, but it never coheres into anything in particular. It’s all shadows and gestures, an odd mirror of the meaningless manifestos that waft through the art world that the narrator slides in and out of. He winds up in jail for filming a food stand without realizing that a revolutionary court building is in the background. The police nab him and a woman he is working on the project with, and it’s off to interrogations for both of them. These scenes were effective in showing the arbitrariness of power in Iran, as in any authoritarian state. The narrator also receives communications from an uncle who lives outside of Iran, as well as his mentor/supporter/unattainable love interest, who may be involved with opponents of the regime in Iran, who may be a double agent, or who may simply be a rich artistic hedonist.

None of these questions are resolved, even at the end when rocks fall and everyone dies. Not literally, and not quite everyone, but very much close enough. In tabletop games, that ending comes into play when the gamemaster is either so annoyed with all of the players or so bored with the entire game that blowing it up seems better than finding a satisfying ending to the story. I can’t tell whether Zolghadr the author was aggravated or bored with Zolghadr the narrator, but the effect was the same. I suppose it’s possible that the narrator imagined the incident, and that he was just being paranoid in imagining his impending death after the book’s final pages. Perhaps he slipped into fantasy during the party to celebrate the club’s opening, and anything after was superfluous. I do not think so, and by then I was not interested enough to try to figure out alternatives.


Softcore is part of the Süddeutsche Zeitung‘s Metropolen series, twenty books set in or relating to great cities around the world. It’s the 17th in the set and the second I have written about. It was written in English and very ably translated into German by Johann Christoph Maass. When I bought a bunch of books in the set all at once, I presumed this would be a translation from Farsi, but no.

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  1. Oh! There’s an author of gaslight mysteries whose gentleman sleuth shares his name and that just baffles me, too! I think in his case it’s only the first name, but still. Quite awkward when writing reviews.

    1. That would be annoying!

  1. […] That same series led me to read a book translated from English into German. I figured that a book about Tehran by a person named Tirdad Zolghadr would have been written in Farsi, but no. I also read a book […]

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