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.