Following the events of chapter 15, Sarkin Aung Wan leads the soldiers out of the tunnels, through sewage, until they come to a ladder that leads to the streets of Mandalay. Paul Berlin walks through Mandalay with his fellow soldiers and mutters, “civilization.” Oscar Johnson notes that Mandalay reminds him of Detroit.
For not the first time in the novel, Johnson compares a place to Detroit—it’s almost a running joke, and perhaps an interesting metaphor for American imperialism (i.e., Americans think everywhere is their home).
The narrative cuts ahead a few hours—the soldiers have boarded a trolley that will take them to the Hotel Minneapolis. They arrive at the hotel and order rooms.
O’Brien doesn’t explain where the soldiers are getting their money—they simply find rooms wherever they go. This corresponds to the escalating implausibility of the book—an implausibility that increasingly seems to be emanating from Berlin’s own imagination.
The narrative cuts ahead a few more hours. Paul Berlin is sitting in a hotel room with Sarkin Aung Wan, who is clipping his toenails. Sarkin asks Berlin—whom she’s begun to call “Spec Four”—if they’ll walk through the streets of Paris together, and Berlin insists that they will, soon enough. Sarkin asks Berlin if it’s necessary to chase after Cacciato, and Berlin shrugs—“it’s the mission,” he says. Later in the evening, the narrator notes, “they almost made love.”
Sarkin and Berlin have a relationship, but it’s not clear if their relationship is romantic in any meaningful sense, or if it’s simply opportunistic (Berlin hasn’t seen a woman in months, and Sarkin wants a man to take her to Paris alive). That they “almost” make love underscores the incompleteness of their feelings for each other: this isn’t a fairy-tale romance (though it may be a fairy tale).
The next morning, the soldiers leave their hotel and begin searching Mandalay for Cacciato. Berlin searches with Sarkin to help him, and he navigates through markets, churches, etc. Berlin feels happy—the city is beautiful, and the sunset, too.
As they might have hoped, the soldiers’ lives seem to be getting better, not worse, the farther they travel from Vietnam.