Friday, 15 January 2016

Book Review: Softcore by Tirdad Zolghadr review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

The international art scene is a world by itself that few of us know from personal experience and yet most of us think of it as carefree, debauched, crazy. Artists seldom do something to refute the impression. In fact, they are more likely to confirm it because it’s one of the unspoken rules of the game that getting public attention of any kind is good publicity. This doesn’t mean, though, that it’s the artists themselves who are the main players. The narrating protagonist of the satirical novel Softcore by Tirdad Zolghadr, for instance, isn’t an artist, but a young man who knows important people in the international art scene. With their backing he sets out to open a place to showcase modern art in Tehran, Iran. Alas, he is someone who takes things easy and likes to indulge in all kinds of pleasures, legal or illegal.

Tirdad Zolghadr was born in California, USA, in 1973, but he grew up in Iran, Switzerland, England and different African countries. He graduated from the University of Geneva which allowed him to earn his living as cultural journalist and translator. Later he became a freelance art critic and curator writing for various art magazines and other periodicals worldwide. In 2007 the author with triple citizenship (American, Iranian and Swiss) brought out his first novel titled Softcore which was followed by another titled Plot in 2012. Tirdad Zolghadr lives mainly in Zurich, Switzerland, but teaches at universities and curates exhibitions in different parts of the world.

The author as first-person narrator of Softcore just moved to Tehran, Iran, and settled down in a studio apartment of the huge Zirzamin housing complex. Although he is Iranian and around thirty, he has never lived in the country of his ancestors because his parents always worked abroad. It was his much admired friend and mentor Stella Badbakht who suggested the change of scene. With her financial support and relying on her expertise as well as contacts in the international art scene, he sets out to change the Promessa, his grand-aunt Zsa Zsa’s once posh restaurant and cocktail bar closed after the 1979 Islamic revolution, into a hotspot of modern art. Following Stella’s ideas, the narrator supervises the remodelling and plans the grand opening with a vernissage and readings eight weeks later, but he doesn’t trouble himself too much with it. Instead he enjoys himself passing time with artist friends like sculptor Cyrus Rahati and his lover Mina, a performance artist and photographer, or the budding filmmaker Mehrangiz for whom he has a bit of a crush. Often his unconventional grand-aunt Zsa Zsa asks him to join her on the farm where she uses to be surrounded by visitors ranking from army officers to journalists, artists and even revolutionary clergymen. Alcohol and drugs are always at hand, and yet, it’s his own film project that gets the narrator into Shekufeh prison eventually. After a few days he is released and given to understand that he is now a police informer. Also the preparations for the Promessa opening are no longer running smoothly although he travels to Europe several times doing what Stella suggests. His old German friend “Uncle” Tan Christenhuber who was inclined to sponsor the project with his Institute for Conjecture, short I-CON, retreats and even Stella drops him…

In his debut novel Softcore the author presents a first-hand satirical portrayal of the international art scene and life in contemporary Tehran that feels even more authentic because he lends the first-person narrator-protagonist his name and certain details from his own biography. Despite this clearly autobiographical touch and a setting that evokes real places throughout, there can be no doubt that the story surrounding the grand opening of the Promessa is pure fiction. The plot itself is rather banal and a bit monotonous because it lacks twists and turns that could with due right be called dramatic – and yet, it’s an engaging read on the whole. First of all, there are the casual as well as naïve protagonist and the well-chosen set of more or less weird characters around him – my personal favourite is grand-aunt Zsa Zsa approaching ninety – who give the novel a comic touch from the very start. In addition, the author makes ample and skillful use of (self-)irony to show the funny sides of daily life in an Islamic country… that isn’t so different from life in Europe and the USA after all. Unfortunately, Tirdad Zolghadr also shows off his knowledge of several foreign languages thus breaking the natural flow of the story ever again and without explanation. I reckon that many readers will be annoyed by it. For the rest it’s an easy and entertaining book.

It’s true that Softcore by Tirdad Zolghadr isn’t the best book that I ever read in my life and I certainly wouldn’t wish to nominate the author for any renowned literary award, but I enjoyed reading it. It’s a good book allowing a glimpse into two worlds that could hardly be more different – the Islamic Republic of Iran and the international art scene – and that don’t too often appear in fiction. This alone makes it a worthwhile read that I don’t hesitate to recommend.

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