Eating Authors: Yaroslav Barsukov

No Comments » Written on February 22nd, 2021 by
Categories: Plugs

Yaroslav Barsukov

What a week it’s been! Since last we checked in I’ve learned that: my cancer is in remission and I should have somewhere in the neighborhood of five to seven years before it stirs up and again tries to kill me, a short story of mine will be hitching a ride as part of the fiction payload that’s going to be left on the moon for posterity and potential future alien visitors to read, and I can shovel massive amounts of snow without difficulty, discomfort, or ill effect. Like much of the US, we’ve had a bit of weather here, which in turn forced me to reschedule my second COVID vaccination, but if all goes as planned that should happen tomorrow.

All in all, February is racing by, which also means members of SFWA have less than a week to send in their nominations for the Nebula Awards. I don’t want to jinx myself, I’m hopeful that I may receive a nomination for a novella, but I’m beyond certain that this week’s EATING AUTHORS guest will be seeing his name on the ballot in that same category. Yaroslav Barsukov‘s tale was originally serialized in Metaphorosis Magazine, but just yesterday it was published as a standalone book, his first. And I should know, I blurbed it.

Yare is from Moscow, but currently makes his home in Vienna where he toils by day as a software engineer. When not dealing with IT or writing fiction, he spends his time building his reputation as a connoisseur of strong alcoholic beverages — good work, if you can get it. Although we’ve yet to meet face to face, let alone share a meal, I’ve known him for years through the online Codex Writers group, and it’s a great delight to celebrate his new book by having him here.

LMS: Welcome, Yare. What bit of Viennese cuisine stands out in your memory?

YB: Sometimes, a gourmet meal can save a crazy-ass art project.

If you ask me what’ll remain of our civilization once Covid finally wipes us out, it won’t be the pyramids; rather, there are six buildings in the heart of Vienna which would probably survive another planet-annihilating asteroid.

Magic, you say? Maybe. They’re flak towers, anti-aircraft bastions Hitler had built to protect the city against Allied planes. And no, unlike the Nazi uniforms, Hugo Boss didn’t design these things—they look like something straight out of a fever dream, mammoth bolts of concrete a giant tried to screw into the ground (stopping halfway because his wife called him to dinner).

Imagine such a hulk looming over a baroque park where Mozart might’ve walked his dog. I say “baroque” because one of the towers does, in fact, stand in the middle of Vienna’s Augarten. Can you believe this? The cognitive dissonance the park’s visitors are exposed to on a daily basis is off the charts.

The city tried blowing the towers up, but unfortunately, the monsters had been built to survive poor weather. A couple of neighboring buildings cracked, a few windows shattered, a butcher somewhere woke up to a coronary. Hundreds of feet of concrete remained pointed at the sky.

So one day, a friend of mine, a wonderful painter, received a grant for an art project involving the Augarten tower. She didn’t tell me what the project was — only, a week later, in the evening, invited me to a “dry run.”

I went in expecting a huge painting on the tower’s side, or perhaps a group of ballerinas throwing rotten eggs at it (modern art, y’all!). What I encountered was a circle of powerful projectors.

Tower of Mud and Straw

The tower was wrapped in a photo of human skin — I suspect my friend had gotten the idea from computer games. It sounds better than it was. What I learned about skin that evening was that it is bland, utterly bland with an occasional blemish and a couple of moles that look like rendering errors.

The timeline, however, was set: the project needed to launch the next day. In such situations, drinking and eating helps get the gray matter brewing, and thus my friend, I, and two other invitees went to a restaurant right there, in Augarten.

The establishment had a somewhat colorful history, switching the chefs every summer with the precision of a Swiss clock; by that point, it was in the hands of an Armenian fellow for whom the phrase “larger than life” seemed tailor-made — with the emphasis on “larger.” He was at least six feet tall, built like an oak barrel, and sporting a massive curly beard. One of the most joyful people I’d met, and a born chef.

I remember ordering seafood, and how he brought out a squid the kitchen would turn into fried calamari — the beast must’ve been a relative of the one that had starred in the Pirates of the Caribbean. For the first time in my life, in a restaurant, I saw my food before it became food. I wasn’t sure if the chef was inviting us to check the squid out or fight it a-la Jack Sparrow.

We produced a few “wows” and gasps. The beard parted in a smile; the man and his sea monster disappeared into the kitchen.

When the servers finally put the plates on the table, I thought that sometime during the evening, our little group had died and gone to heaven. Crunchy rings melted in my mouth, tomatoes popped on my tongue, the butter and the sauce bathed my palate. I regretted not having a black hole in my stomach like that character from Bob Gale’s Interstate 60.

The chef joined us at the table, and we drank a few rounds of Blaufränkisch. After a while, I noticed my artist friend eating the guy with her eyes. Well, it’s not just the jaws at work here, I thought, fishing for another calamari ring with my fork. I suspected romantic attraction.

And then she stands up, takes out her camera, and says, “Could you please stick out your tongue?”

That’s how the cook’s tongue ended up wrapped around the indestructible Nazi tower. Weirder things must’ve happened, but none I’ve been involved in. Years later, in 2020, that experience prompted me to drop my own anti-airship stronghold into the middle of a fantasy novella.

In Tower of Mud and Straw, a thousand-foot monstrosity is held together by devices brought by refugees from another world. Devices that may draw attention none can afford… Which is stranger here, life or fiction? I don’t know. In the meantime, I implore you all to try out fried calamari.

Thanks, Yare. As it happens, I too am a huge fan of calamari, but the timing has to be spot on — cook it too little and you’re looking at vibrio poisoning, too long and you might as well be chewing on rubber. But when you get it just right, ahhhh, sublime!

Next Monday: Another author and another meal!

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