October 20, 1994
Gallegos: “Peace on High”
Rómulo Gallegos’ “Peace on High” is a story of terrible neglect, cruelty, and atavism. Yet out of the poverty and disease comes a glimmer of goodness and devotion, which makes the mother, Plácida, voice: “Look how there’s things in this life ya can’t explain” (67). Before this observation, Plácida and Felipe are driven by naturalistic urges and desires, competing for survival as did their animalistic ancestors.
At the story’s open, Felipe, animal-like sits staring over the mountain range “a miserable, sad creature” with a “heart scarred by hate for everything that lives and moves around him” (62). He is haunted by an image of his mother and Crisanto having sex shortly after the death of his father; this sends him into periodic rages until with clutched fists and rattling teeth “he has torn whatever he can get his hands on” (62) There is an “emptiness inside his head,” a sense of lost identity, and “a sudden, definite silence that seems as if it will never come to an end. He is constantly compared with a beast with beastly cravings: “He howled like a cornered animal;” “The repulsive creature;” “Excited by hunger, the boy approached her greedily;” “That’s the Devil’s own son” (63, 65, 66).
Plácida is also driven by urges, but also more than that. Her animalistic desires are tinged with rational malice. Her cravings are blocked by Felipe: she cannot get a good job, she does not have enough food, she does not have the love of the Crisanto. She believes that these things could be hers if it were not for the boy, the sick, loathsome boy that looks at her with those greedy, wicked eyes. She is also influenced and goaded by Crisanto who insists upon Felipe’s devilish ancestry.
It seems that Gallegos wants to make a distinction between instinct and evil. The former one needs to survive, and although it appears brutal, is necessary for survival. The latter is a product of the intellect: animals cannot be evil because they are solely driven by instinct. Only people can be evil. Ironically, the only loyal, devout, and good figure in this story is a stray dog. The dog, as if sent by some higher order, becomes the guardian of Felipe, and sacrifices himself to save Felipe from his mother’s intents. The dog, although an animal, showed the boy the love and compassion that he could not get from his mother, for, even driven by hunger, the boy still offered the dog a piece of his cassava. It took an animal to bring out the humanity in the boy. After the dog’s death, the boy begins to be less driven by urges and more contemplative: “Mama, why do you want me to die…?” is the question that hauntingly ends the story (68).
The story’s title, “Peace on High” is perhaps meant as ironic. It could be suggestive that peace is capable even in such a retched milieu. For the boy, by the end of the story, no longer seems driven by hate, but a rational, thoughtful human being who can ask his mother why she hates him so. Perhaps the boy’s ability to ask this question is the first step to peace? Plácida is still frightened, but there is something inside the boy that fascinates her: there are things in life that one cannot explain. Yet it is part of the human spirit to question, to order, to reconcile ourselves with the universe, to bring peace on high.