Zolghadr paints a vivid picture of Tehran as a vibrant hub of cultural cross-currents; a place where art can thrive in the interstices of the society created by the mullahs of the Islamic Revolution. Unfortunately, his characters are one-dimensional and the author resembles his protagonist in being rather pretentious. The writing in Softcore is overblown and pompous; wordy where it should be pithy, cynical where it should be witty. Despite these failings, it is a rare and fascinating glimpse of an Iran that both Ahmadinejad and the Western media would rather we didn’t see.
In Tehran, a cocktail bar, The Promessa, closed during the Islamic Revolution in 1978, is about to reopen as a fashionable venue for corporate hospitality and a setting where the movers and shakers of the cosmopolitan worlds of fashion and art can mix and mingle. Softcore, Tirdad Zolghadr’s satirical début novel, is narrated by San, a young Iranian man tasked by his shadowy employers with finishing the project on time and under budget. San, an artist and a graduate of Yale University, fancies himself as something of an artistic wheeler-dealer and he employs his considerable ingenuity and guile to con work out of reluctant contractors, members of the militia and innocent passers-by.
San blunders into trouble – and the book stumbles into thriller territory – when he is arrested and jailed while photographing the Revolutionary Courthouse. Somewhat implausibly, he is blackmailed into becoming a spy and he enters a dangerous world of conspiracy, duplicity and political intrigue.