Category: Fiction

Bettina Wilpert
Nichts, was uns passiert
[That kind of thing doesn’t happen to us]

Novel

It happens everywhere

At first glance, nichts, was uns passiert could be regarded as a contribution to the “Me Too” debate, though that movement hadn’t yet kicked-off when Bettina Wilpert was writing her debut novel. The book is about a young man who has sex with a young woman who doesn’t want it at that moment. The story revolves around whether what happened was rape or not. This question is examined from various angles, as presented by an anonymous, reporter-like narrator. The fact that there is, in the end, no clear answer to this question makes the novel an intriguing literary experiment.
 
The action takes place in the type of milieu where people would normally think “that kind of thing doesn’t happen here.” Wilpert takes us into the student scene of Leipzig, East Germany’s coolest and most desirable city. The fact that Bettina Wilpert lives in Leipzig lends the work a great deal of authenticity, although the case at the novel’s core is fictitious. Anna, late twenties, with a Ukrainian background, has recently completed her languages degree and is working part-time in a bar. Jonas, of similar age, is writing a PhD thesis on Ukrainian popular literature. They meet through mutual friends, find they have a lot to talk about, especially politics, and sleep with each other without becoming romantically involved.
 
They meet again at a party at Jonas’s place. Anna gets really drunk, Jonas takes her to his room, and suddenly he wants sex. Anna is physically unable to resist him. Later, she says that she said No; Jonas claims he didn’t hear her. When she wakes up, Anna feels abused and traumatized. After three months of depression alternating with helpless rage, she reports Jonas to the police. The case cannot go to trial because there is no proof of physical violence. As soon as word gets out among their friends and acquaintances, people take sides and battlefronts are drawn. Jonas is ostracized, purely on the basis of suspicion.
 
Bettina Wilpert carried out research for her novel in online victim forums, and interviewed a social education worker, a lawyer, a psychologist, and a detective superintendent. The language she uses is spare, matter-of-fact, and unadorned, apart from certain expressions that accentuate the record-taking style of the narrative. In spite of this laconic approach, the plot is vivid, and the reader engages with each of the characters as the perspective shifts back and forth between the protagonists and the many other observers who get to tell their version of events. By remaining strictly impartial and reserving all moral judgment, the author encourages the reader to think about how society deals with sexual assault, and its psychological, legal, and interpersonal consequences.
 
This book is both timely and topical. It offers an insight into the lives of young Germans between city and campus though a story that will resonate beyond geographic borders.
Kristina Maidt-Zinke

By Kristina Maidt-Zinke, 20.12.2018

​Kristina Maidt-Zinke is a literary and music critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung and writes reviews for Die Zeit.

Translated by Rachel McNicholl