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Clifton, Mark – “The Conqueror” (1952)

04/23/2013

A small boy in rural Guatemala discovers that the tuber of a certain dahlia plant (which are usually inedible) is a delicious narcotic, a single bite of which satisfies hunger for an entire day. Once cultivated, the plant quickly “conquers” the world, bringing peace and prosperity to all.

The story opens with a list of facts on the culture of dahlias, but quickly abandons any kind of formal experiments in favor of recounting the boy’s story: Padre Tomas christened him Juan Rafael de la Medina Torres, so of naturally he was called Pepe. The language is full of oddities like “of naturally,” which are presumably supposed to represent the fact that these are not native English speakers? “He dreamed of being even as el Presidente de Guatemala” and
To all the world he would become even as a father” and so on. These are from the section where Pepe, prior to discovering the dahlia, dreams of conquering the world – a dream quickly forgotten when he becomes a dahlia fiend. The narrative then leaves him and expands outward with the tubers, pacifying all of Guatemala, at which point we get the ubiquitous dig at the USSR:

Moscow, ever wary in its inferiority complex, and never ceasing to jockey for position, was the first of the capitals to summon its embassy’s return. It demanded an account of these un-Marxian reports of serenity and peace in a capitalistic country. It wished to know why if there was no indigenous trouble some had not been manufactured.

The dahlia makes the world so much better, in fact, that “[f]or the first time within written history the wretched masses of India and the famine-accustomed Chinese knew the full belly and peace and progress.

We then spiral back down to Pepe, years later, who is about to get married, and who knows nothing of what he had wrought because the world outside his village has “no reality” for him.

“What a one I was,” he called aloud and shouted again with laughter. “I remember I was so fierce in those days. Why, I was going to conquer all the world!”

Misguided allegory about cocaine (from… Guatemala) or just a send-up of world domination stories?

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