Going After Cacciato

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Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Storytelling Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Vietnam and the Chaos of War Theme Icon
Obligation vs. Escape Theme Icon
Discontinuity and Trauma Theme Icon
Survival and Self-Preservation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Going After Cacciato, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Storytelling Theme Icon

When Going After Cacciato was published in the late 1970s, critics weren’t sure how to classify its peculiar combination of gritty war realism and fantasy. There are scenes in the novel that seem extremely realistic, scenes that require the suspension of disbelief, and some scenes that are nothing short of impossible—indeed, the plot of the book itself (a group of US soldiers travels all the way from Vietnam to Paris in search of a soldier from their platoon who has wandered off) sounds like a fairy tale. In one chapter, O’Brien realistically describes American soldiers’ long, dull hours of hiking through mountains in Vietnam, during which their only forms of entertainment are singing and eating candy. In another, O’Brien describes how the same soldiers break out of a prison using grenades. There’s even a nightmarish series of chapters in which the soldiers “fall” through a hole, walk around beneath the ground, and then “fall out” of the hole. The issue, then, is understanding O’Brien’s blend of the believable and the unbelievable, and incorporating it into our comprehension of the book as a while.

One of the most common phrases critics used to describe Going After Cacciato, at least at the time, was “magical realism.” The genre of magical realism is most commonly associated with the works of Latin American novelists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, and, later on, English language novelists like Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. In a work of magical realism, the characters witness and experience events that could not, by any measure, occur in the real world, and yet they do not regard these events as unusual in the slightest. Certainly, magical realism is a useful concept for understanding the tone of O’Brien’s novel. When the soldiers fall through the hole in the ground and then “fall out,” they’re frightened, irritated, but—strangely—not that surprised. It’s as if in the chaos of war Vietnam has become a place where everyone has accepted that the laws of physics and normal reality don’t apply anymore: magic has become the accepted reality.

While magical realism can help us understand some of O’Brien’s literary choices in Going After Cacciato, it doesn’t quite do justice to O’Brien’s use of perspective. A crucial element of the magical realist novel is that everyone agrees on what is magical and what is normal. (When the soldiers fall out of the hole, for example, not one of them finds the experience abnormal in any way.) And yet O’Brien always sets an asterisk next to the word “everyone.” The majority of the novel is told from the perspective of the young, inexperienced soldier Paul Berlin—a man who is constantly struggling to make sense of his position in Vietnam. At many points, it’s suggested that the story of Berlin’s journey from Vietnam to Paris—in other words, the plot of the novel we’re reading—is a story Berlin is telling himself as a way of coping with his fear and anxiety. It’s as if the more fantastic parts of the book are playing out in one man’s head—not because he believes they could really happen, but because he needs to believe in something.

In the end, O’Brien makes a more complicated point than the one his original critics thought they’d picked up on. While it’s impossible to tell where the “magical” parts of O’Brien’s story end and the “real” parts begin, this shouldn’t suggest that everything in the book is magical realism. The point is not simply that reality has become magical, or that all soldiers come to accept that reality is a nightmare. Rather, O’Brien suggests that people, especially people in danger, need to tell themselves magical, far-fetched stories to make sense of their lives. Stories give people hope, and provide them with the strength to survive.

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Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Storytelling Quotes in Going After Cacciato

Below you will find the important quotes in Going After Cacciato related to the theme of Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Storytelling.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Paul Berlin watched through the glasses as Cacciato's mouth opened and closed and opened, but there was only more thunder. And the arms kept flapping, faster now and less deliberate, wide-spanning winging motions—flying, Paul Berlin suddenly realized. Awkward, unpracticed, but still


Related Characters: Paul Berlin , Cacciato
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:
O’Brien here sets the surreal, rather confusing tone of his novel. Paul Berlin, a young soldier fighting in the Vietnam War, has been tasked with following Cacciato, a mysterious soldier who’s apparently deserting the army. As Paul tries to track down his former peer, he finds Cacciato moving through the plains of Vietnam, apparently flying. O’Brien never entirely explains whether this scene is real or imagined. Berlin is portrayed as an unreliable narrator with an active fantasy life, but it’s also possible that the novel itself—not Berlin—is meant to be fantastic and unrealistic. O’Brien chooses to write his novel in such a way—blurring the line between fantasy and reality—because he feels that such a book is the only honest way to deliver an account of the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, many American soldiers like Paul Berlin confronted unspeakable horrors and sustained deep psychological wounds, eventually, they could no longer distinguish between nightmare and the real world. The sight of Cacciato stretching his “wings” and trying to fly conveys the soldiers’ frantic desire for freedom and escape in a way that a totally realistic novel could never manage.

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Chapter 5 Quotes

He would go to Europe. That's what he would do. Spend some time in Fort Dodge then take off for a tour of Europe. He would learn French. Learn French, then take off for Paris, and when he got there he would drink red wine in Cacciato's honor.

Related Characters: Paul Berlin , Cacciato
Related Symbols: Paris
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Paul Berlin, stationed on a beach, imagines escaping from his duty in Vietnam and traveling to Europe, where he dreams of leading a leisurely, sensual life of wine and women. O’Brien keeps returning to the image of Berlin sitting on the beach, and at first, it’s unclear when, exactly, Berlin is sitting there. But as the novel goes on, it becomes clearer that Berlin is remembering—and at times, fantasizing—about a search for Cacciato in which he participated recently.

Perhaps the key phrase in this section is “in Cacciato’s honor.” For Berlin, Cacciato (and Paris, the city with which he's associated) is a symbol of escape from the terrors of Vietnam: although Berlin and his fellow soldiers have been tasked with capturing Cacciato, they secretly regard him as something of a hero for finding a way out of the nightmarish world in which they’re trapped.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Then they were falling. Paul Berlin felt it in his stomach. A tumbling sensation. There was time to snatch for Sarkin Aung Wan's hand, squeeze tight, and then they were falling. The road was gone and they were simply falling, all of them, Oscar and Eddie and Doc, the old lieutenant, the buffalo and the cart and the old women, everything, tumbling down a hole in the road to Paris.

Related Characters: Paul Berlin , Lieutenant Corson , Sarkin Aung Wan , Oscar Johnson , Eddie Lazzutti
Related Symbols: Paris, Tunnels
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul Berlin and his fellow soldiers have stumbled upon a secret Vietcong lair, which may or may not be booby-trapped. Berlin and his fellow soldiers fall underneath the ground, though O'Brien never describes exactly how. It's left up to us to decide whether the episode is real or imagined: certainly, American soldiers encountered more surreal spectacles during their service in the war (and the Vietcong did have a complex system of tunnels during the war), and yet O'Brien depicts the soldiers' fall underground in fantastical terms that echo Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, making us wonder if the entire scene is a dream or hallucination of some kind.

The soldiers' fall is deliberately paralleled with Cacciato's flight: Cacciato is slowly freeing himself from his duty to the military, while his fellow soldiers find themselves mired in the horrors of war. Once again, the soldiers associate Paris with peace, escape, and tranquility--and the hole into which they have fallen delays their journey to Paris. (Of course, it's worth noting that the peace and prosperity of Paris comes in part from the exploitation of poorer countries and its former colonies like Vietnam--surely a deliberate choice of symbol on O'Brien's part.)

Chapter 11 Quotes

They spent the night along the Song Tra Bong. They bathed in the river and made camp and ate supper. When it was night they began talking about Jim Pederson. It was always better to talk about it.

Related Characters: Jim Pederson
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that Berlin and his fellow soldiers are hiding something. Having fought in one of the bloodiest wars in American history, they've seen tremendous death and destruction; they've also committed acts of violence against innocent civilians, as well as against their own peers. In other words, every soldier in the army is living in a state of constant guilt and fear.

O'Brien, who served in Vietnam himself, is very perceptive about how soldiers deal with their pain. The best therapy is talking: by keeping their feelings bottled up, the soldiers run the risk of cracking under the pressure of keeping their own tragic secrets. Through conversation and gallows humor, the soldiers find an outlet for their feelings, which allows them to regain a sense of solidarity and community, and remember that they're not the only ones feeling guilty and anxious.

Chapter 13 Quotes

"The soldier is but the representative of the land. The land is your true enemy." He paused. "There is an ancient ideograph—the word Xa. It means—" He looked to Sarkin Aung Wan for help.
"Community," she said. "It means community, and soil, and home."
"Yes," nodded Li Van Hgoc. "Yes, but it also has other meanings: earth and sky and even sacredness. Xa, it has many implications. But at heart it means that a man's spirit is in the land, where his ancestors rest and where the rice grows. The land is your enemy."

Related Characters: Sarkin Aung Wan (speaker), Li Van Hgoc / Van (speaker)
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul Berlin and his fellow troops--along with a Vietnamese woman named Sarkin, whom the soldiers have encountered during their mission--fall into a tunnel and stumble upon a Vietcong soldier named Li Van Hgoc. Because he tried to escape the Vietcong, we slowly realize, Hgoc has been forced to live in the tunnel, never to see the light of day.

Here, Hgoc makes the strange claim that a soldier is just a representative of his "land." In other words, soldiers on opposite sides of a war might not bear one another any hatred at all--they've merely been ordered to fight on behalf of their community, country, or city. Although Hgoc is trying to argue that soldiers are fighting against a country, not individual people, his argument has an ironic double-meaning. In a very practical sense, the American soldiers' own land is their enemy: powerful government officials have ordered them to fight against their will, risking their lives and mental health in the process. And on another level, Hgoc's claim speaks to the sense of futility behind the entire Vietnam War effort--there is no concrete enemy that can be defeated, but an entire "land" that works against the American soldiers on multiple levels.

Chapter 15 Quotes

Sarkin Aung Wan uncurled her legs and stood up.
"There is a way," she said.
The lieutenant kept studying his hands. The fingers trembled.
"The way in is the way out."
Li Van Hgoc laughed but the girl ignored it.
"The way in," she repeated, "is the way out. To flee Xa one must join it. To go home one must become a refugee."
"Riddles!" Li Van Hgoc spat. "Insane!"
Sarkin Aung Wan took Paul Berlin's hand. "Do you see?" she said. "You do need me."

Related Characters: Sarkin Aung Wan (speaker), Li Van Hgoc / Van (speaker), Paul Berlin , Lieutenant Corson
Related Symbols: Tunnels
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Sarkin, who is still trapped underground with Paul Berlin and the other soldiers, offers some ambiguous wisdom in this passage: "the way in is the way out." Sarkin thinks that she has a way of escaping the tunnels--even though Hgoc, who's been around for far longer, denies any possibility of escape.

It's hard to take Sarkin's words literally (by this point in the novel, we're so confused about the tunnels that we don't know what to believe). But on a symbolic level, Sarkin's pronouncement has a lot to say about the soldiers' state of mind. Traumatized by war, Berlin and his friends are trying to return "home"--both in the sense that they're trying to make it back to the U.S. in one piece, and in the sense that they're trying to preserve their sanity. Just as Sarkin implies, in order to savor one's home, one must first become an outsider. We see this through Paul Berlin's behavior: not too long ago, he was a frustrated young man, eager to leave his home and fight in the army--now, however, he's desperate to return to the homeland and state of innocence he left behind. In short, Sarkin's ideas reflect the soldiers' broken-down, yet strangely optimistic, worldview.

Chapter 18 Quotes

But who was he? Tender-complected, plump, large slanted eyes and flesh like paste. The images were fuzzy. Paul Berlin remembered separate things that refused to blend together. Whistling on ambush. Always chewing gum. The smiling. Fat, slow, going bald, young. Rapt, willing to do the hard stuff. And dumb. Dumb as milk. A case of gross tomfoolery.
Then he spotted Cacciato.
"That's him," he said. A bit of pastry clogged his throat. He looked again, swallowed—"That's him!"

Related Characters: Paul Berlin (speaker), Cacciato
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Berlin and the other soldiers have tracked Cacciato to the city of Mandalay. As Berlin walks through town, eating food, he's amazed to see Cacciato walking through the streets, dressed as a monk. Berlin describes Cacciato as a child, or even a baby--fat, bald, smiling, chewing, etc. Indeed, Cacciato seems completely innocent of the crimes he's witnessed in Vietnam: Paul and his fellow soldiers are men, but Cacciato is portrayed as something like a child, blissfully (and enviably) unaware of the horrors of war. 

It's interesting that Berlin's recollections of Cacciato ("bald, young") arrive before he sees Cacciato, not immediately afterwards. Perhaps O'Brien is suggesting that Berlin is imagining Cacciato. Since it's already been implied that Berlin is imagining the entire mission to hunt down Cacciato, one could describe this passage as an imaginary encounter within an imaginary encounter. As the quest to track down Cacciato goes on, reality blurs to the point where every event feels like a dream, or a projection of Berlin's psychology.

Chapter 36 Quotes

So now he ran. A miracle, he thought, and he closed his eyes and made it happen.
And then a getaway car—why not? It was a night of miracles, and he was a miracle man. So why not? Yes, a car. Cacciato pointed at it, shouted something, then disappeared.

Related Characters: Paul Berlin (speaker), Cacciato
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

In this dreamlike sequence of events, Paul and his fellow troops manage to break out of their prison cell in Tehran and make a run for it. No explanation is offered for how they're able to escape (they have a grenade, but it's not clear where they got it). After a certain point, O'Brien purposefully doesn't even try to make the scene seem realistic--for example, Paul seems to imagine a getaway car, and then sees one in real life. We're reminded that the entire episode--and the entire hunt for Cacciato--might be Paul's daydream in the first place, meaning that his "inventing" of a car is only one tiny part of the story he's dreamed up.

Chapter 39 Quotes

They knew the old myths about Quang Ngai—tales passed down from old-timer to newcomer—but they did not know which stories to believe. Magic, mystery, ghosts and incense, whispers in the dark, strange tongues and strange smells, uncertainties never articulated in war stories, emotion squandered on ignorance. They did not know good from evil.

Page Number: 270-271
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, O'Brien describes how the American soldiers interact with the people of Quang Ngai. The soldiers have been told that some of the people in Quang Ngai may have worked with Vietcong soldiers to kill American troops--but it's impossible to know which people, if any, did so. In the confused environment of Vietnam, the American soldiers don't know who to trust. They want to protect themselves, and so they think of every Quang Ngai civilian as a potential threat--in other words, they can't distinguish good and evil.

As the passage suggests, the American troops in Vietnam are confronted with a series of moral tests in which their loyalty to one another is pitted against their desire to get along with the Vietnamese civilians. As we've already seen, Paul and his friends are sometimes forced to make decisions with no "good" option--the savagery of the war forces them to do evil without calling it evil. To take this idea even further, O'Brien seems to suggest that in wartime there is no clear divide between good and evil--everything is vague, fantastical, horrifying, and instinctual.

Chapter 40 Quotes

It would not have ended that way: cops and customs agents, defeat, arrested like wetbacks at the wharves of Western Civilization, captured within mindshot of the lighted Propylaea and Parthenon, nothing fulfilled, no answers, the whole expedition throttled just as it approached the promise of a rightful end. It wouldn't have happened that way. And it didn't.

Related Characters: Paul Berlin (speaker)
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul and his fellow soldiers are about to get arrested around Greece, and it seems that their long journey has finally come to an end. But just when we've given up all hope, Paul seems to "intervene" in the story, and he decides that "it would not have ended" in Greece--and thus he decides that the story is going to keep going.

The passage exemplifies a "deus ex machina" moment, in which a happy ending arises out of surprising, unexpected circumstances. The fantastical, self-referential quality of the passage reinforces that the entire story is seemingly being imagined by Paul, rather than lived out by real characters in the "history" of the novel. Paul refuses to allow a sad ending in his own fantasy. (At the same time, it's a mark of how miserable Paul's circumstances in Vietnam have become that it's so hard for him to imagine a happy ending for his own daydream.) In general, Paul--perhaps still trapped in Vietnam--seems to crave escape from his situation, and so he imagines an over-the-top story of the ultimate escape.

Chapter 43 Quotes

Strangers would buy drinks. Policemen would smile and shake their heads. Money was never a problem, passports were never required.

Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

Once they reach Paris, the soldiers have no problem surviving--they have plenty of money and their passports are never requested. In short, Paris is everything Paul and his friends dreamed it could be: a peaceful city in which they can be happy and carefree forever.

It's notable that Paris doesn't offer the soldiers any of the problems that previous cities did--unlike in Tehran, there are no troublesome officers asking for identification. If we're meant to believe that the soldiers' stay in Paris is a product of Paul's imagination (and by this point in the novel it's hard to imagine any other explanation for so many implausible twists and turns in the plot), then perhaps the absence of danger or obstacles in Paris is meant to signal that Paul has finally succeeded in freeing his mind from the realities of war: he's finally gotten to the point where he can daydream about peace and contentment instead of just more violence.

Chapter 44 Quotes

Spec Four Paul Berlin: I am asking for a break from violence. But I am also asking for a positive commitment. You yearn for normality—an average house in an average town, a garden, perhaps a wife, the chance to grow old. Realize these things. Give up this fruitless pursuit of Cacciato. Forget him. Live now the dream you have dreamed. See Paris and enjoy it. Be happy. It is possible. It is within reach of a single decision.”

Related Characters: Sarkin Aung Wan (speaker), Paul Berlin , Cacciato
Related Symbols: Paris
Page Number: 318
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sarkin Aung Wan asks her lover, Paul Berlin, to stay with her in Paris. Paul has reached a cross-roads: thus far, he could always pretend that he was following military orders by pursuing Cacciato to Paris, even when it was clear that he was really going to Paris to escape the war. Now, Paul and his friends are about to be chased out of the city: the authorities have finally caught up with them, and they know Paul is a deserter. Sarkin asks Paul to stay behind with her, risking arrest but also possibly gaining true happiness.

One should keep in mind that Sarkin might be an opportunist, more interested in having money and a nice apartment than in Paul himself. But in a sense, Sarkin is exactly right. Paul isn't just following his orders; he's choosing to have a difficult life. He obeys authorities and goes with the group, even when doing so makes him miserable and endangers his life.

Chapter 46 Quotes

"I guess it's better this way," the old man finally said. "There's worse things can happen. There's plenty of worse things."
"True enough, sir."
"And who knows? He might make it. He might do all right." The lieutenant's voice was flat like the land. "Miserable odds, but—"
"But maybe."
"Yes," the lieutenant said. "Maybe so."

Related Characters: Paul Berlin (speaker), Lieutenant Corson (speaker), Cacciato
Related Symbols: Paris
Page Number: 336
Explanation and Analysis:

In this final scene, a flashback to the beginning of the novel, Paul and Lieutenant Corson (who will eventually become rivals for Sarkin's love), discuss the possibility that Cacciato--who's just run away from the army--will succeed in reaching Paris. Strangely, both men agree that Cacciato very well might succeed in his quest, unlikely as it seems.

In a way, Cacciato's disappearance is meant to symbolize the soldiers' desire to survive the war in Vietnam--if Cacciato can make it all the way to Paris unharmed, then perhaps Paul, Corson, and the others can make it back to the U.S. sane and in one piece, too. The scene also reminds us that the novel we've just read might be the product of Paul's imagination--perhaps Cacciato is killed early on in his journey, but Paul continues imagining that Cacciato makes it away from the war and completes his unlikely odyssey to Paris. In the end, O'Brien leaves us with a cautious optimism--perhaps it's possible for the soldiers of this bloody, brutal war to survive while also maintaining their sanity--and perhaps it's hope, imagination, and fantasy that helps them do so.