The chapter begins almost immediately after the events of Chapter 13. Berlin peers through a periscope and Li Van Hgoc, who’s standing beside him, explains what he’s looking out. Van, who’s concluding his explanation, says, “things may be viewed from many angles.”
We resume the chapter shortly after Berlin peers through the periscope. The notion that things can be seem from many angles is clearly meant as a comment on the novel itself, with its obvious discontinuities and perspectival shifts.
Van continues escorting the soldiers through the tunnels. He shows them a beautiful lounge area, and a large kitchen full of delicious-smelling food. Suddenly, Lieutenant Corson interrupts Van, and explains that he and his troops “need to get going.” Van laughs slightly and points out the “snag” in Corson’s plan: Corson and his troops are Van’s prisoners, since they’re trespassing on Vietcong territory. Corson whispers menacingly that he and his troops have Van outmanned—a fact that Van readily admits. Corson orders Stink Harris to tie Van to a chair. The troops then rush out through the tunnels and proceed to destroy as much as they can: the periscope, electronics, food, etc. Van weeps as he watches the soldiers destroy his beloved tunnels.
In this sudden, unexpectedly moving ending to the conversation between Van and the soldiers, we come to understand the pain of Van’s existence. He’s all alone in a tunnel, meaning that he gravitates to whomever explores the tunnel, even if they’re his enemies in the Vietnam War. The soldiers’ destruction of Van’s home, then, seems strangely cruel and petty—like a child spitefully destroying his siblings’ toys.
After the soldiers destroy the tunnels, they return to ask Van for “his story.” Van is a young man, though he looks much older. He was born in Hanoi, was trained as a member of the Communist Party, and grew up with an excellent education. When “the war” broke out, he was sent to South Vietnam to fight alongside the Vietcong. Overcome with fear, Van tried to desert his army, but was captured soon after. As punishment, he was sent to operate the Vietcong tunnels, never coming to the surface of the earth. Van tried to escape from the tunnels many times, but could never manage to find a way out.
Van is a sympathetic character, a man who was forced to fight in a war he didn’t care about at all. In an ironic way, his story parallels that of Cacciato: he tried to desert, and seems to be suffering the consequences of his decision. One could say that the tunnels symbolize the inescapable trauma and pain that the American soldiers endure in Vietnam—but they also show that this trauma isn’t limited to the Americans, and the war is devastating to Vietnamese soldiers as well.
As the soldiers gather around Van, they try to think of a way out of the tunnels, as clearly, Van can’t help them. Sarkin speaks up and says that there is a way to escape: “The way in is the way out.” She explains, cryptically, that the soldiers have fallen into a hole—now they must fall out. Van cries out that Sarkin is speaking in riddles, and can’t be trusted. But Lieutenant Corson, who seems to be in a trance state, looks at Sarkin and decides to follow her. Sarkin leads Corson and the other soldiers away from Van, into the darkness of the tunnels.
In this fantastical twist, Sarkin frees the soldiers, seemingly by saying a kind of “spell” that allows them to “fall out.” It’s fascinating that Corson and his men follow Sarkin’s lead instead of questioning—indeed, Van is the only one who questions Sarkin. Whether this is further evidence of the magical realism of the story, or of the soldiers’ desperation, is itself never made clear.
Sarkin leads the soldiers through the tunnels. Time stretches on, and Berlin isn’t sure if the soldiers are spending hours or days in the tunnels. They go to sleep in the tunnels and wake up, still underground. Berlin wonders if they’ll ever see the surface of the earth again.
Just as our sense of distance becomes confused as we trace Cacciato’s progress across Asia, our sense of time also becomes elastic in this interlude in the tunnels.