Following the events of Chapter 26, the soldiers are sitting on a train. They watch the mountains of Punjab, Peshawar, and Kabul. Sitting with the soldiers is Lieutenant Corson—the soldiers have brought him along. Corson wakes up and asks where he is. Then he sees that he’s in a train, and quietly lights a cigarette.
Corson’s behavior in this opening scene seems to confirm that Johnson and his fellow soldiers did the right thing by “kidnapping” Corson from Delhi—Corson wouldn’t have lasted long with Jolly.
Paul Berlin watches Corson smoke his cigarette, and thinks back to his own experiences earlier in the year. After climbing through the mountains, ordered on by Lieutenant Sidney Martin, Berlin found himself in the midst of a large battle. Trees were burning, and shots were coming from the distance. One of Berlin’s fellow soldiers, Ready Mix (whose real name nobody knew) was killed immediately. The soldiers pushed ahead for what felt like days. Eventually, they came to a burning hospital, surrounded by bombshell craters. The enemy forces seemed to have left. Martin and the soldiers discovered a network of tunnels, and as usual, Martin ordered his troops to explore the tunnels before bombing them out.
The line between the two storylines in this book—Berlin’s pursuit of Cacciato, and his memories of his earlier days as a soldier—is blurring. Previously, this line was clearly delineated by chapter, but now, a chapter about Berlin’s experiences in Delhi can dissolve into a flashback about his time in Vietnam. Martin embodies the conflict between orders and self-preservation. The tunnels of Vietnam pose a threat to any American soldier—a threat to which no sane person would want to expose himself.
The chapter cuts back to the soldiers’ train ride from Delhi to Kabul. The soldiers play cards, sleep, and stare at the vast, snow-capped mountains.
Again, O’Brien shows us the importance of “interludes” in a soldier’s life. So much of Berlin’s time is spent playing cards and trying to relax.
The soldiers’ train stops—there is a problem on the tracks, and the passengers will have to spend the night in the neighboring town of Ovissil. The soldiers meet the mayor of Ovissil, who loves to tell stories. The mayor tells the soldiers that “God’s will is always stronger than man’s will.” Paul Berlin is especially fascinated by the mayor—a charismatic, mysterious man. The mayor stares at Berlin, and says, “you are young. Come to me when you have had time to make a real history for yourself.” The next morning, he sends the soldiers on their way, weeping slightly.
The importance of storytelling is a key theme of this novel, and in this sense, the mayor is one of the key characters. The notion that God’s will is always stronger than man’s is wildly optimistic, but also fatalistic. Berlin’s brand of storytelling is a little different—instead of accepting that God is telling the “story” of reality, Berlin tries to develop alternate stories to tell himself, alternate histories.