By Edmundo Paz SoldÃ¡n
Translated from Spanish by Jessica Sequeira
When we talk about literary avant-gardes we tend to imagine a group of writers planning manifestos, participating inÂ happenings, and editing books together. In many Latin American countries not everything was so collective; that was the case with Bolivia, where Hilda Mundy (1912-1982) was the only avant-garde writer (and one of the few female avant-garde writers on the continent). In the ’30s, when Mundy wrote, Bolivian poetry was still attached to forms of modernism from which the rest of the continent had moved on; it would have to wait until the end of the ’50s and start of the ’70s for renewal to occur.Â This may explain why the merits of the Oruro poetâ€™s small body of work are only now being appreciated.
Hilda Mundy, the pseudonym of Laura Villanueva Rocabado, published just one book in her lifetime:Â â€˜Pirotecniaâ€™, subtitledÂ â€œA spineless essay on Ultraist literatureâ€Â (1936). The book was forgotten until 2004, when the Bolivian publishing house Ediciones La Mariposa Mundial printed a new edition of this highly valuable work. Mundy’s seventy prose texts attempt to capture the noise of the metropolis in the new century, the product of technological transformations and changes in sensibility and behavior. Her work comments on the fledgling modernity in the west of the country, including the possibility of alternatives to marriage and the new roles aspired to by women (â€œâ€¦she now feels herself a suffragistâ€¦Â chauffeurâ€¦Â aviatorâ€¦Â engine driverâ€¦Â concert performerâ€¦Â boxerâ€¦â€). Paradoxically, Mundy didnâ€™t support the proto-feminist movements of her age.
The author sings her praises to electricity (â€œThe hulking street light developed into an electric light bulb through a miracle of the Empress of Lightâ€¦â€) and plays with the changes in perspective duringÂ a journey in a tram:Â â€œOn the platform with all the last minute passengers, two worlds appeared to me: travelers in the tram seated childlike facing one another, and the evasive artistic panorama of the city [â€¦]Â Science and art for the modest sumÂ of twenty centavos!â€. Her writing registers technological advancesÂ â€”Â the telephone, the public streetlightÂ â€”Â and new urban settingsÂ â€”Â the theater, the sweet shop, the stadiumÂ â€”Â and admires them, while also showing doubt about the toll of progress. She writes of the automobile, for instance, thatÂ â€œthose traveling in it accustomed to the landscape disappearing behind them, also long for the disappearance of humanityâ€. She accepts the modern cult of velocity, but prefers the calm movement of the tram to the frenzy of automobiles.
At the age of only twenty-four and with such a promising work behind her, Hilda Mundy opted for silence. It would be logical to think she paid the price of many female writers of the period, who consumed by marriage and family (Mundy married two years after publishingÂ â€˜Pirotecniaâ€™) didnâ€™t enjoy the possibility of continuing a literary career. Without opposing that reading, the poet and critic Eduardo Mitre proposes another, reminding us that in the epilogue of her book Mundy mentions three types of artists. One of them is theÂ â€œGenius who remains silentâ€¦Â because to remain silent is to make thought flourish on the route to perfectionâ€. Mitre also points out that in her prologue Mundy suggests her texts areÂ â€œfleeting fancies that represent nothingâ€. Literature, in the Dadaist gesture of the author, is a useless project that must be questioned.
After herÂ â€œpyrotechnicsâ€Â andÂ â€œattack on logicâ€Â thatÂ â€œdoes without authenticity and borders the absurdâ€, the resulting gesture of the great artist is silence. In this, Mundy is as radical in her avant-gardeÂ ethosÂ as CesÃ¡rea Tinajero inÂ â€˜The savage detectivesâ€™. Literature may be predestined to failure, but one can discoverÂ â€œjoyâ€Â in this.
Edmundo Paz SoldÃ¡nÂ was born in Cochabamba and is the author ofÂ â€˜rÃo fugitivoâ€™,Â â€˜el delirio de turingâ€™Â andÂ â€˜irisâ€™.
Jessica SequeiraÂ is a writer and translator living in Buenos Aires.Â