Lost & Found Latin America: a Moment With Hilda Mundy the Bolivian Avant-Garde

Lost & Found Latin America: a Moment With Hilda Mundy the Bolivian Avant-Garde

A tempt­ing neck­line is the hall of a great hotel where the notes of a delight­ful jazz band can be heard, com­ing from the dis­crete and har­mon­ic noise of neck­laces of fan­tas­tic stones

It is one thing to note that Lat­in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry is under­rep­re­sent­ed in North Amer­i­ca and else­where. But it is a whole oth­er thing to note that Lat­in Amer­i­can wom­an in lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry are com­plete­ly and almost vio­lent­ly under­rep­re­sent­ed glob­al­ly. Heav­ier hit­ting coun­tries such as Mex­i­co, Chile, Argenti­na and Brasil have found some acclaim in his­to­ry for pro­duc­ing tal­ent­ed writ­ers who breach the sur­face of inter­na­tion­al suc­cess. But there are many Lat­in Amer­i­can coun­ties whose writ­ers deserve our recog­ni­tion and respect. One such writer is Hilda Mundy. Her bib­li­og­ra­phy is per­haps as scarce as her rep­u­ta­tion beyond the bor­ders of Bolivia; how­ev­er, what she did pro­duce was cer­tain­ly remark­able.

Mundy was born Lau­ra Vil­lanue­va Rocabado in 1912 in Uru Uru (Oru­ru) Bolivia. Hilda Mundy would be the pen name that she would lat­er adopt. She had adopt­ed sev­er­al pseu­do­nyms through­out her career as a jour­nal­ist and writer and it is thought that some remain unknown. Her moth­er too was a jour­nal­ist, and writ­ing was a part of fam­i­ly life for her. Her father, Emil­io Vil­lanue­va, was a famous archi­tect. Per­haps her fam­i­ly her­itage had some­thing to do with the struc­ture of the only book she would pub­lish in her life­time, Pirotec­nia? Though Mundy wrote plen­ty, she was to pub­lish only a sin­gle slim vol­ume and at the age of 24 decid­ed that the true path of the avant-garde was to live in accept­ed silence.

Silence” Mundy believed, “the genius remains silent … because in silence thought flour­ish­es on the path to per­fec­tion.” How­ev­er, it must be acknowl­edged that she was mar­ried just two years after pub­lish­ing her only book and at the age of 24 was when she had decid­ed to fall into a silent obscu­ri­ty. This is also thought to be anoth­er fac­tor in Mundy’s “cho­sen silence. Although she decid­ed to become silent short­ly after her first pub­li­ca­tion, with­out a doubt she had made an impres­sive­ly explo­sive debut with her book Pirotec­nia (Pyrotech­nics).

Hilda Mundy was the avant-garde in Bolivia. The avant-garde move­ment in Lat­in Amer­i­ca was already a thin­ning com­mu­ni­ty, but Mundy did not belong to this com­mu­ni­ty any­way. She was iso­lat­ed from the rest of the Lat­in Amer­i­can avant-gardests and this was ben­e­fi­cial to her writ­ing and gave her a greater free­dom than if she was to be influ­enced by oth­ers in the avant-garde move­ment. At the time of her writ­ing mod­ernism was in fash­ion in Lat­in Amer­i­ca and hers was a poet­ry which reject­ed the roman­ti­cism and machis­mo that she found so preva­lent in the mod­ernist move­ments. Pirotec­nia dis­played the tac­til­i­ty of her prose and exper­i­men­tal nature. It is a text which begs the read­er to begin liv­ing, to live poet­i­cal­ly and extrav­a­gant­ly. To live the avant-garde. It reads as a col­lec­tion of poet­ic mus­ings and apho­risms. A blue­print to live by, she writes in the books open­ing lines:

There are, more or less, sym­pa­thet­ic over­lap­ping real­i­ties, both “found” and new …

If you are true to your­self, being extrav­a­gant, there is no rea­son to cut the thread of that extrav­a­gance, asso­ci­at­ed to a com­mon log­ic and vul­gar­ized to an extreme degree.

The world of metaphors is so var­ied … so infinite … that it lends itself to being vio­lat­ed at any­time.

You can fan­ta­size so vivid­ly … inescapably … the man who pass­es by, the wom­an who speaks or sim­ply the tiles that timid­ly bor­der the streets.

Mundy cre­ates for us a high­ly imag­i­na­tive and rev­o­lu­tion­ary archi­tec­ture for liv­ing life. And not only that, he also gives us per­mis­sion to cre­ate our own spaces. We are asked to become par­tic­i­pants in the cre­ation of new, open and poet­ic spaces. We become a part of a grander exper­i­ment in her writ­ing, not as pas­sive agents but as active par­tic­i­pants. This is what the avant-garde should aim to do in its purest form, cre­ate spaces of active par­tic­i­pa­tion and exper­i­men­ta­tion.

What is real­ly inter­est­ing about Hilda Mundy’s iso­la­tion from the gen­er­al avant-garde move­ment is the mys­tery behind her influ­ences. At times she rejects occi­den­tal knowl­edge and belief sys­tems com­plete­ly and almost bor­ders on a philo­soph­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry sim­i­lar to that of Zen. But we can cer­tain­ly glean cer­tain traces of euro­cen­trism at the same time as she fol­lowed a lega­cy left by the Dadaists and the Ultra­ist move­ment born out of Spain. In fact, Pyrotech­nics is sub­ti­tled A Spine­less Essay on Ultra­ist Lit­er­a­ture. Her writ­ing dis­plays Ultra­ist ten­den­cies in its heavy use of metaphor and its allu­sion to the poten­tials of tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ment.

Like pyrotech­nics such as fire­works, Mundy’s writ­ing acts as a spec­ta­cle, a bright bril­liant flash, that dis­ap­pears quick­ly. For her, lit­er­a­ture has an ephemer­al nature. We blooms and decays. We ought to find com­fort in the fact that lit­er­a­ture is bound to dis­ap­pear, and per­haps even more com­fort­ed that we have the abil­i­ty to recre­ate or rein­car­nate lit­er­a­ture. The dust­bin of his­to­ry is as deep as we want to make it, and the ghosts of the Lat­in Amer­i­can avant-garde seem to be worm­ing their way to the sur­face. The rea­son is that we need their voic­es again. We need wom­an like Hilda Mundy to remind us of the pow­er and joy of exper­i­men­ta­tion. And that we cer­tain­ly can’t keep a good wom­an down.

Mundy’s brand of fem­i­nism was both con­tra­dic­to­ry and excep­tion­al for her time. The most con­tra­dic­to­ry aspect being how she may have chose to sub­mit to the more typ­i­cal gen­der roles of the time. One has to won­der if she chose silence, or if she was coerced into it by her hus­band. Of course, this is spec­u­la­tion, but it is some­thing we can imag­ine and con­tin­ue to pon­der over. Indeed, the pos­si­bil­i­ty remains that she con­tin­ued to write under new­ly fash­ioned pseu­do­nyms unknown to us today. In her work she addressed the per­for­ma­tive nature of wom­an, almost as if per­form­ing the idea of what it meant to be a wom­an actu­al­ly con­struct­ed a sub­dued and con­strained ani­mal. She tack­led the issue of gen­der roles in mar­riage and in the work­place, but again we see a con­tra­dic­tion in her life as it appears that while she wrote about the­se issues she didn’t always agree with them or at least her behav­ior was some­times in con­flict with her lit­er­ary ide­al­ism.

Hilda Mundy’s work remains untrans­lat­ed in Eng­lish which is a true shame. As the Lat­in Amer­i­can lit­er­ary, arts and cin­e­ma scene is pick­ing up pace, sub­ver­sive­ly infil­trat­ing Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture, we can hope to soon see a trans­la­tion of Pirotec­nia. A trans­la­tion of this book would breathe new life into this poet/writer, who saw a quick lived res­ur­rec­tion in Lat­in Amer­i­ca when Pirotec­nia was repub­lished in 2004. A new life in a new lan­guage would ensure a new death … a quick burst and sparkle in the night sky inspir­ing a new gen­er­a­tion to reject the nor­ma­tiv­i­ty and homo­gene­ity of con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry. Or, per­haps, her silence will speak much loud­er than her words in remind­ing us that silence is a viable option for writ­ers and artists. Like her we must choose our own path to per­fec­tion, and we must com­mit to it! So until there is a trans­la­tion, Eng­lish read­ers will just have to enjoy Hilda Mundy’s silence.