Brian Marley



The goldfish swims in his rectangular aquarium. Dreamily, he patrols his world of fake coral, yellow gravel, edible weed, the wreck of a 17th century Spanish galleon, and the shells of several defunct crustaceans. But to Colonel Esquivel’s regret, Bolívar, his goldfish, has failed to get to grips with the sulky plough, the vanity mirror, and the numerous educational toys he has so thoughtfully provided.

The colonel raps with a knuckle on the toughened glass, and when Bolívar draws near he says: “According to intelligence, insurgents are massing darkly like storm clouds in the interior.”

To reward Bolívar for paying attention, he sprinkles a pinch of daphnia on the surface of the water. The aquarium is suffused with light from a Caribbean Blu Glow bulb, by which the colonel, an insomniac, likes to read in the interminable hours after midnight. Bolívar and me, he thinks, keeping each other company while the rest of the world sleeps. Apart from the insurgents, that is. Insurgents almost never sleep, it’s a matter of principle with them.

The colonel sits, reading. He flicks the corner of each page as he reads, bathed in blue aquarium light. Books on interior décor are a firm favourite. Unread intelligence reports are stacked high on his desk.




Colonel Esquivel once had long, friendly telephone conversations with the generalissimo, sometimes three times a day. He and the generalissimo were on back-slapping terms. But no more: an unfathomable chill has entered their relationship. The generalissimo seems different from the generalissimo he once knew, or thought he knew. They haven’t played golf together for at least six months. Worse still, this year, for the first time in a decade, the generalissimo failed to send him a birthday card.

Whenever he recalls this, as all too often he does, the colonel experiences a pang. It’s a nebulous pang. Because he can’t always distinguish between emotions, he doesn’t know whether the feeling he’s feeling is loss or loneliness (or do they amount to the same thing?), and he doesn’t know who could best help him to clarify the situation. Apart from the generalissimo. The generalissimo closely monitors the state’s emotional weather, and no matter how turbulent it gets he always responds appropriately. Sometimes he’ll gate-crash a village wedding and present a set of steak knives to the furiously blushing bride. Sometimes people snatched from the street get tortured or killed. The generalissimo – so cruel, so capricious. Yet no-one fails to mention his unspeakable charm.

The colonel experiences another pang, and this time it’s acute. He has a chestful of medals and a well-drilled regiment, but the solace they provide is meagre. If only he had a wife instead of a goldfish (or as well as a goldfish), a wife . . . perhaps then he’d be less inclined to practise a form of masturbation involving bayonets and ceremonial duelling swords. This habit has left him scarred for life. After sports he no longer feels comfortable showering with his fellow officers.




The generalissimo has set the colonel an impossible task: single-handedly (i.e. without the help of his regiment) he must flush the insurgents out of the interior – eight hundred square miles of inhospitable and largely uninhabited terrain. But although the colonel searches diligently among rocks and scrub, the insurgents cannot be found. Intelligence blames a lack of intelligence, for which no-one is to blame. But as even an illiterate barrio lawyer will tell you, blame must be apportioned, recompense sought.

Esquivel’s worst fears are confirmed when he’s ordered back to the capital immediately. Apparently, the generalissimo is extremely upset; he’s declared that not a morsel of food will pass his lips until the colonel has delivered his report. The generalissimo hasn’t eaten for three days. His food-tasters, who are permitted to eat nothing but meals prepared for the generalissimo, are understandably also upset.

The generalissimo stalks the lengthy corridors of the presidential palace, his brow a series of compressed ridges, his hands locked so tightly behind his back they’re as white as bleached bone. An aggressor is massing troops along the western border and his spies are monitoring communications, trying to detect signs of weakness. If the generalissimo so much as faints from hunger an invasion will ensue.




In Colonel Esquivel’s absence, an electrician has entered his townhouse. He moves the aquarium over by the window while he frees a faulty cable from the wall. This is the cable that channels the generalissimo’s brand of nationalism into every home, even into homes without electricity.

Apparently, there’s some kind of blockage in the wires. It happens all the time. Why else would the population be so restive?

A sniper sends a high-velocity round crashing through the windowpane. Because of flawed intelligence the insurgents think the colonel is at home reading books on interior décor. Or is this one of the generalissimo’s crack marksmen? The electrician has obviously been mistaken for the colonel, perhaps because their moustaches are groomed in a style made popular nearly a century ago by Emiliano Zapata.

But the bullet fails to hit its intended target. Having barely nicked the lower left-hand corner of the aquarium, it ricochets into an antique mirror, a gift from Isabella of Castile to an Aragonese colonel-ancestor of the colonel’s with whom she was, purportedly, smitten. The mirror shatters cinematically into a thousand priceless fragments. With a yelp the electrician quits the room.

After the debris and the dust has settled, a chip of glass no larger than a contact lens drops from the lower lip of the aquarium. Water begins to trickle down one leg of the stand and vanish into a crack in the tiles.




The colonel sits despondently amidst rocks and scrub, of which the interior of the country chiefly consists. Ten thousand insurgents could hide here, he thinks, and go openly about their business without fear of detection. In time they might even found an insurgent city, build churches, schools, a hospital, a soccer stadium and an airport. The interior is roomy and lacking in décor but it has – he notes, much to his surprise – primitive charms that could easily be enhanced. Rugs, drapes, throw cushions, ancillary lighting and the subtle colour co-ordination of plants would work wonders on such a drab, scrubby terrain. Gigantic mirrors could be installed, to create a feeling of controlled spaciousness. And isn’t there an untapped aquifer somewhere in the vicinity? The pièce de résistance could be – yes! – an aquarium. The largest in Latin America. An aquarium as big as Lake Poopo.

Eight hundred square miles of interior, minus décor: the thought of it makes his moustache bristle. Perhaps, on reflection, this task outweighs in importance the delivery of his report. Bad news can always wait. In two/three years he’ll return in triumph to the capital, having made the interior, or at least a sizeable chunk of it, habitable. The interior might even become a top holiday destination, bringing in North American and Canadian dollars, and maybe Euros too. For the first time in the country’s history the economy would flourish. In which case the charges to be laid against him – of dereliction of duty, desertion and, most likely, treason – would be quashed, with a raucous laugh, by the generalissimo. He’d kiss him fraternally. They’d resume their Thursday morning rounds of golf, and as always the colonel would let the generalissimo win – though not by too wide a margin, that would look suspicious.

In the meantime there’s a considerable amount of work to be done. The colonel will summon his regiment, both battalions, including reservists. The men are, at present, confined to quarters, lazing around in their underwear, playing desultory hands of poker and paring their fingernails with bayonets. But he’s sure they’ll rise magnificently to the challenge. A lake-sized aquarium! – just the thought of it will make their moustaches bristle like porcupines.




Although the generalissimo managed to avoid fainting from hunger, he was toppled in a palace coup and replaced by another generalissimo. The new generalissimo is little different from the old one, other than that, in the afternoons, he prefers to drink peppermint tea rather than maté – a fact universally known but which the press isn’t allowed to mention.

When facts are in short supply, rumours abound. One such rumour is that the new generalissimo is actually one of the old generalissimo’s lookalikes – but which one? Rumour has it that the lookalikes were legion. One of the old generalissimo’s lookalikes dealt with nothing but the country’s guava exports; another masterminded the operations of the secret police; another wore a fancy uniform and led the army in ostentatious military displays; yet another wrote books of modernist sonnets about quarks and quantum mechanics. There were lookalikes who were fencing masters, architects, wine connoisseurs, abstract expressionist painters; and these specialist lookalikes had understudies, apprenticed to the art of being a generalissimo lookalike.

Because of this immaculate deception, the generalissimo was perceived to be a man of immense stature, one who stood head and shoulders above other men, and other leaders – though, in truth, he was obliged to wear a corset to correct a deformity of the spine and had massive lifts built into his shoes.

That the generalissimo was vain was universally known. Every one of his lookalikes had to be younger, taller, suaver, better educated and more eloquent than the generalissimo, who was an ignorant, maladroit lout with, so his critics said from their countries of exile, the table manners of a goat. To avoid the risk of sullying his media image, the generalissimo’s advisers advised him never to go out in public except under heavy disguise, and preferably not at all.

But surely, runs a popular line of argument, surely the generalissimo died almost a decade ago? As well as being notoriously vain, he was also notoriously lazy. First thing in the morning, last thing at night, one of the lesser lookalikes squeezed toothpaste onto his toothbrush. Another lesser lookalike then brushed his teeth for him. And when the generalissimo couldn’t be bothered to expend even that small measure of energy, as was often the case, the lookalike brushed his own teeth in lieu of the generalissimo’s teeth. And wasn’t this surrogation taken to extremes? When the generalissimo was fatally ill with heart disease, didn’t one of the lookalikes have a triple bypass operation in his stead? Wasn’t the generalissimo smuggled, post mortem, from the palace in the dead of night and bundled into a river patrolled by the most voracious school of piranha in all of Latin America? – a fate that had befallen so many of the generalissimo’s enemies.

The press reported nothing of these events, not a whisper.

Ah . . . But according to an editorial in the Utopia Free Times, the new generalissimo can walk on water, and a withered limb bathed in the golden nectar of his urine will spontaneously regenerate. At the Vatican, Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the congregation of the causes of saints, is said to be keeping an eye on his progress.




As the blue-lit aquarium water drains away, the oxygenation tube pokes above the waterline, along with the mastheads and crow’s-nest of the sunken Spanish galleon. Bolívar’s world is getting cramped and uncomfortable. Soon it won’t sustain piscine life. Eventually, he’ll lie among dry coral and gravel, a corpse; his flesh will rot away; his bones will splay and bleach in the sun.

Peculiarities such as the Spanish galleon aside, the interior of the aquarium is starting to look uncannily like the interior of the country where Colonel Esquivel, lonesome as a rock, awaits his regiment. A battalion has been instructed to stop off at his townhouse and pick up Bolívar, the aquarium, and several large sacks of daphnia – but nothing else. Not even the colonel’s ceremonial duelling swords. Not even a spare change of underwear. If his men are to experience privation, the colonel will gladly suffer it too.

He recalls how, whenever a pinch of daphnia was sprinkled on the surface of the water, and Bolívar rose towards it, he felt compelled to remove his hand lest he frighten the fish, his friend, his solace. Yet Bolívar rose so eagerly, as if hungering for something more than food. And, in truth, sometimes he merely drew some daphnia between his lips, then spat them out, and with a powerful swish of his tail swam away.

Of the numerous attempts made by the insurgents on the lives of the generalissimo, his diplomats, his key advisers, and various high ranking military personnel, not one has succeeded. Their crowning achievement may be the accidental assassination of a goldfish.




At dawn, in the presidential palace, the day-shift lookalikes eat breakfast and allocate tasks. Julio, a restless former night-shift sleeper relegated to the day shift, proffers a bundle of straws of different lengths, the irregular ends sunk in the meat of his fist. The lookalikes each take a straw. When a short straw is drawn, a difficult or potentially dangerous task has to be undertaken. A long straw – such as the one Nestor has selected – denotes a mundane task. In this case, between 11.10 and 11.20 a.m., Nestor has to be photographed wearing the upper half of a full dress uniform, so that later in the week the generalissimo can renew his passport.

Excluded from the draw is one of the specialist lookalikes, known as a soundalike: Luis, who studied at the Sorbonne and speaks a French so exquisite it would make Marcel Proust shiver like an aspen. What’s more, he sounds just like the generalissimo speaking exquisite French – something the generalissimo himself patently cannot do. At 5.00 p.m., Luis will meet with the French Ambassador, his lady wife, and a delegation of corrupt French mineralogists. Each of the mineralogists has an expensive gift for the generalissimo. They’re keen to plunder the extensive mineral deposits in the interior.

And what of Ramos, who drew the shortest straw? He has to cut the ceremonial ribbon and deliver a speech at a small nuclear power facility. It’s the smallest facility of its kind in the world, operated by children. “They’ll treat it as a toy, and it will teach them about responsibility,” he says, reading aloud from the text that has been prepared for him. His fellow lookalikes offer a mocking round of applause. Then “Vamos, Ramos!” they cry, for one of the armour-plated presidential limousines is ready to depart, accompanied by a pistolero gang of leather-clad motorcycle outriders. The facility has been sited a very long way from the capital, near the western border, where easterlies continually blow. If – God forbid! – there should be an uncontrolled discharge of radioactive material, a gentle but persistent breeze will deliver it safely into the country next door.

But radiation sickness is among the least of Ramos’s worries, though with the dregs of his coffee he gulps down a precautionary iodine pill. Attempts on the life of the generalissimo are an almost daily occurrence, and the insurgent-assassins have become increasingly bold. Consider the fate of poor Eduardo. He’d no sooner stepped onto the balcony overlooking the presidential square than a grenade – fired by a slingshot, according to the generalissimo’s top ballistics expert – struck him full in the chest. Having kept goal at one time for a soccer team of local repute, Eduardo acted instinctively – he caught the grenade, whereupon it exploded, blowing him to pieces. Smithereened body parts and a shower of blood rained down on the square. The crowd let out a fearful moan. The generalissimo, hidden behind bullet-proof drapes, caught the shattered torso of his lookalike as it was hurled by the force of the explosion through the open French windows and into the state room. Down below, in the square, there was pandemonium. Tanks were swiftly manoeuvred into position to block all access roads. Realising that something was expected of them, soldiers began to fire indiscriminately into the crowd. Amid screams, gunshots and mounting hysteria, the generalissimo strode onto the balcony, covered in blood but miraculously whole. Slowly, with supreme authority, he raised his arms in the air to quell the crowd’s cries of anguish and exultation.

The lookalikes working the day shift have become accustomed to terror, or at least reconciled to it. But is it any wonder they harbour resentments? Their night-shift colleagues are pampered, lazy; each and every one of them retires to a different bed each night, and his sole task is to sleep soundly for at least eight hours, otherwise the generalissimo won’t feel rested.




The regiment is in its underwear, confined to quarters. Every fingernail has been pared, every last toenail cut; a mountain of surplus nail has been deposited in a bin by the reeking latrine. Even Hector, parrot and regimental mascot, has had his claws clipped – perhaps too vigorously, for, unable to perch, he’s hunkering sullenly on the floor of his cage. Time has no meaning in the barrack room. Fifty thousand desultory hands of cards have been played, in the course of which the playing cards have become almost featureless, reduced to tatters and shreds, and now they can be shuffled only with the aid of a pitchfork. But nobody is prepared to shuffle them, no-one will take the initiative.

If only the colonel could, somehow, march into the barrack room and issue an order – Colonel Esquivel, with those distinguished flecks of grey in his hair and bygone-era matinee idol looks. To the men serving in his regiment he is many things: a surrogate father, a noble companion, a war hero, a role model, a bona fide revolutionary icon. And something more . . .

In the dead of night, under cover of darkness, while their compadres lustily sleep, it’s not unknown for new conscripts to remove from the shelf in their bedside locker, beneath handkerchiefs and the statutory clean pair of white cotton shorts, a framed photograph of the colonel, and kiss it fervently, again and again. Self-manipulation or even self-mutilation of the genitals may ensue. Likewise muffled sobs. Conscripts in adjacent beds quickly learn to ignore such things.

But the colonel’s ordering days are done. The generalissimo has just announced, in an unscheduled bulletin, with considerable regret, the following news: Colonel Octavio Esquivel has been killed in a most barbaric manner – stoned to death by insurgents. As yet it has not been possible to recover his body from the interior, though a closely supervised team of French mineralogists is searching high and low. Once recovered, the colonel’s body will be buried with full military honours; and, as a mark of respect, his books on interior décor will be housed in a new extension to the state library, to be called the Esquivel Culture Wing.

The regiment would like to mourn, but no order has been given to that effect.




Daphnia on the surface of the water, dappling the light. When Bolívar rises, the hand that sprinkles the daphnia withdraws. Is there, thinks Bolívar, an aquarium in the afterlife, an aquarium of infinite capacity? Does it contain coral, weed and gravel, a Spanish galleon and myriad trappings indicative of prosperity and success? How blue will the water be? Is there really such a thing as a hand that forever sprinkles daphnia and never, ever withdraws?