Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Augusto Monterroso’s “The Eclipse”

Read the story.

The Eclipse by Alma Thomas

Disturbing and interesting details run through this short-short story by renowned Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso, winner of The Juan Rulfo Award in 1996 and the Prince of Asturias Award in Literature in 2000. The darkly humorous piece is a tricky narrative, full of ambiguity and irony. The story is just one page long but can inspire thoughts for days.

Eclipsed by the Jungle

The story opens with Brother Bartolome Arrazola eclipsed by the Guatemalan jungle. The priest is a religious zealot who came to the Guatemalan jungle to perform redemptive work on the Mayans. He hoped to convert them to Roman Catholicism and thereby eclipse their indigenous beliefs.

Lost and trapped in the “implacable and final jungle,” Brother Bartolome is convinced nothing can save him. He accepts his fate and quietly sits waiting for death to claim him in the merciless jungle. As the story unfolds, Brother Bartolome reveals himself as topologically ignorant, culturally arrogant, and culturally uneducated as well.

His Own Religion Is In The Process Of Being Eclipsed

As he waits for death, he thinks about the Los Arojos convent in Spain. This is where Charles the Fifth, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and King of the Spanish Empire, on which the sun never sets, had “condescended to lessen his prominence and tell him that he trusted the religious zeal of his redemptive work.” This story behind the narrative, of the Emperor’s approval of Brother Bartolome’s work, enriches the short piece and adds strong irony to the story. While Charles the Fifth’s goal was to establish a universal empire, the Protestant Reformation eventually eclipses his sovereignty and his religion.

The Natives Prepare For Sacrifice

When Brother Bartolome wakes, he finds that he is surrounded by “indifferent natives” who are preparing to kill him. He perceives their altar of sacrifice as the place where he would “finally rest from his fears, his destiny, from himself.” Once more he accepts the dire circumstances; he is ready to accept his death. But then he speaks a few words, which he learned while spending three years in the land, and the natives understand him.

Use of Deception To Save His Own Life

He then comes up with an idea he considers “worthy of his talent, universal culture, and steep knowledge of Aristotle.” He decides to save his own life by deceiving the Mayans. He tells them “If you kill me, I can darken the sun in its heights.” He presents himself as having the power of a god who controls the very sun and suggests that the universe will notice and react to his death. He fully expects the unenlightened and likely superstitious Mayans to believe he has these powers and will believe his outrageous lie.

Disbelief Of The Mayans

The Mayans look at him with disbelief. Monterroso doesn’t explain what the Mayans disbelieve or what it is they don’t think is true. By not telling, Monterroso allows the reader to jump to habitual conclusions. It is an easy assumption to think they are surprised and even frightened that the priest makes such a threat. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clearer that more is going on in their disbelief.

They consult with each other as he waits confidently and “not without some disdain.” He still believes he and his worldview are superior, and thinks the Mayan beliefs are in need of elevating. He believes they can easily be fooled and will be frightened to think he possesses god-like powers. He assumes his lie is going to work on these naïve, unenlightened natives.

Momentarily The Two Cultures Come Together

The Mayans consult for two hours. The lengthy amount of time isn’t explained but can indicate a coming-together moment for the two cultures. Perhaps the Mayans look at the priest with disbelief in their eyes because they are surprised that Brother Bartolome, like them, knew of the coming eclipse. That is also where the priest makes his fatal mistake in judgment by thinking only his culture could have such complex knowledge.

After they end their counsel, the Mayans then spill the fiery blood of Bartolome’s heart on the sacrificial stone. As he is destroyed, one of the Mayans unhurriedly recites “without raising his voice” the “infinite data in which there would be solar and lunar eclipses.”

The Story Ends In Dark Humor And Irony

With his feelings of superiority unshaken, Brother Bartolome is not able to realize the Mayan people have their own complex culture and their own mathematicians, scientists, and astronomers. Without any help from Aristotle, the figure who represents the priest’s formal and classical education, they had recorded eclipse dates on their codices. In Monterroso’s darkly humorous and ironic manner, Brother Bartolome’s threat comes true in that his death does take place while the eclipse that they all, Brother Bartolome and the Mayans, already knew was going to take place that day. With the spilling of his blood, the Mayan people finally and fully eclipse Brother Bartolome.

Many readers are familiar with Monterroso’s “The Dinosaur,” which is one of the shortest stories known. In full it goes, “When he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” When readers wake up from reading “The Eclipse,” the disturbing questions raised in this tiny story will also still be there.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

Image: The Eclipse by Alma Thomas (1891-1978). Acrylic on canvas. 57.5 x 126.5 cm. 1970. By free license.