Augusto Monterroso's El Eclipse

In celebration of the upcoming eclipse crossing North America on April 8th, I’ll be posting one eclipse-related post per day.

Today, let me recommend to you Augusto Monterroso’s short story El Eclipse, about a total solar eclipse in Central America. You can read the original Spanish text here and an English translation here.

Monterroso was a master of the very short story. Indeed, his most famous work might be El Dinosaurio (The Dinosaur) which reads in its entirety:

Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio todavía estaba allí.
(When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.)

El Eclipse isn’t quite that short, but it feels complete and less gimmicky than El Dinosaurio. In less than 1000 words, Monterroso manages to convey the hubris of western civilization, the grim stoicism of the Mayans, the comeuppance of a trickster. I first read the story in high school, and I’m reminded of it every time I think about eclipses.

In reality, although the Mayans could predict lunar eclipses with a good deal of accuracy, they, like most other ancient civilizations, couldn’t really predict solar eclipses. While both solar and lunar eclipses recur periodically, lunar eclipses are much easier to forecast since they are visible across half the globe whenever they occur. In contrast, solar eclipses are only visible along their narrow band of totality, so while we have records of ancient civilizations witnessing solar eclipses, they wouldn’t have had enough data points to figure out a pattern. The first correct prediction of a total solar eclipse ocurred in the early 1700s when Edmond Halley used Newton’s laws of gravitation to predict the May 3, 1715 eclipse passing right over London.