American literature began in 1884 with this book: Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even Prahlhan’s Ernest Hemingway sank into sheepish humility decades later, declaring that it was “the best book we had. There was nothing before that. There has been nothing as good since then.”

The classic is still considered a style-defining novel in the United States today like no other, and the book was controversial from the start. In the 19th century, sanctimonious bores found “Huckleberry Finn” too rough; since the 1950s, it has repeatedly been banned from schools. Critics use the N-word, which Mark Twain used a disturbing 219 times in the book, as evidence of their accusations of racism.

The book is still controversial today; And Percival Everett has now thrown himself into the middle of these battles of interpretation with his magnificent novel “James”. Everett rewrote Twain’s novel so skillfully and cleverly that from now on you wouldn’t want to read “Huckleberry Finn” without “James”.

Everett reverses the perspective, telling the story in the sober first person from the point of view of Jim, whose real name is James, the novel’s black slave. As in the original, 27-year-old James flees the town of Hannibal to an island on the Mississippi after learning that he will be sold and separated from his wife and daughter. There he soon meets Huck, who faked his own death to escape his drunken father who abused him. This seals James’s fate, as he calculates: “I put two and two together in my head. Huck had supposedly been murdered, and I had just run away. Who would they blame for this heinous crime?”

At Twain, around every bend of the big old Mississippi, new adventures awaited the two as they floated down on their raft. But what was an adventure for Huck Finn now becomes, from James’ perspective, a daily fight for freedom and survival. Everett is based on the plot of the original; you recognize many scenes and people. But he doesn’t always go on Twain’s raft, he doesn’t dock in all places, but he shows enough leisure in other places to dig out deeper layers of interpretation based on the original.

While Twain poked fun at American society at the time through the naive gaze of young Huck, Everett dissects white racism with the sharp gaze of a black figure who is whipped and has to protect his wife and child from torture and rape. James is a fighter, albeit a human one, reluctant and contradictory. An educated hero who realizes that the Bible is a tool of his oppressors. In his dreams he has extensive inner dialogues with Rousseau, John Locke and Voltaire about freedom and slavery; He secretly studied her works in his slave master’s library.

Percival Everett, an English professor in California, has written more than 30 books. His parody “Erased” was just adapted for the cinema under the title “American Fiction” and won an Oscar. What all of his works have in common is that he answers major philosophical questions with subtle humor. Like Twain, Everett is an outstanding humorist.

At the beginning he shows the absurdity of racism in a language lesson that James gives his daughter. He reminds her: “White people expect us to sound a certain way, and it can only be useful not to disappoint them.” If the whites don’t feel superior, you have to suffer as a slave. Later he teaches his daughter how she should thank the white mistress for a piece of inedible cornbread: “But what will you tell her tomorrow when she asks you if you liked it?” Lizzie cleared her throat. “Miss Watson, that’s a cornbread like I’ve never eaten in my life.” – “Try ‘where I’,” I said. – “That would be the correct incorrect grammar.”

In addition to James, his double-tongued language is also the focus of the novel. Everett uses a form of Southern English spoken by black people in the 19th century. Translator Nikolaus Stingl does an excellent job of translating this slang into German in an artificial but credible dialect that never runs the risk of producing a primitive, simple idiom of a supposed slave language.

In the end, however, as Everett shows in his book, which turns into a furious thriller, no amount of incorrect grammar helps the slaves out of their incorrect lives. If Hemingway were still alive, he would have to praise this book just as he did Mark Twain’s original.