It is April, 1969, and the soldiers are in Luxembourg, boarding a train for Paris. The train ride is only four hours—a fact that baffles Paul Berlin, who’s been thinking back on the soldiers’ journey from Vietnam. They’ve been traveling for more than six months. Berlin is enormously excited to reach Paris.
Berlin is understandably excited to reach Paris, as he’s been dreaming about going there for months. It’s not clear what he’ll do in Paris, however, or whether or not he’ll encounter Cacciato one final time.
The train ride draws to a close, and Berlin looks through his window to see the outer city of Paris. There are farms and old buildings, many of which have been destroyed in the chaos of World War II. Then, Berlin sees the famous sights of Paris: Gothic cathedrals, handsome bridges, bakeries—in all, the city looms before Berlin “like a ghost.” As the train pulls into its station, Berlin and the other soldiers hide their weapons and prepare to disembark.
O’Brien’s description of Paris isn’t so dissimilar from his descriptions of Cacciato—Paris is ghostly and unreal, both familiar and alien to Berlin and his friends. This seems natural, especially as we now assume that Berlin never went to Paris at all, and is still imagining his idealized version of the city.
Berlin, Sarkin, and the other soldiers leave their train and begin their stay in Paris. Berlin notes that the city looks strangely blurry—as though he’s in a dream. But Berlin knows this is no dream—“it’s all real.” The soldiers begin staying in a hotel near the Italian embassy. Doc points out that nobody will believe the soldiers’ story of tracking down Cacciato, unless they succeed in capturing Cacciato. Berlin recognizes that Doc is correct, but finds it hard to focus on his task when the city of Paris is so beautiful. He and Sarkin (who stills calls him “Spec Four”) stroll through the streets, laughing and staring out at the Seine (the principal river of Paris).
We’ve come to a point where even Berlin himself can’t distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t. As usual, Doc provides a voice of (almost) reason: the troops’ only chance now is to hunt down Cacciato and present him to the proper authorities. Yet Berlin and Sarkin are too obsessed with Paris to spend the entire day looking for Cacciato—they want to enjoy the city.
The soldiers proceed with their search for Cacciato, but their pace is leisurely. They enjoy sitting in French salons and listening to accordion music. They eat at cheap restaurants and drink fine wine. Somehow, the narrator notes, “Money was never a problem,” and “passports were never required.”
“Money was never a problem” sums up O’Brien’s brand of magical realism—he ignores all the implausibility of his story, while also drawing our attention to this very implausibility. We recognize that his story is fantastic, to the point where we see that it must be Berlin’s own invention.
One day, Sarkin suggests that she and Paul Berlin move into an apartment in Paris. Berlin is interested in this idea, but he insists that he has to capture Cacciato before he can do anything else. Sarkin tells Berlin that he should forget his friends and concentrate on his new life in Paris. Berlin continues to express his reluctance. This angers Sarkin. She tells Berlin that he’s a coward, and urges him to make up his mind immediately. Reluctantly, Berlin agrees to tell Doc and the others about his plans to live in an apartment with Sarkin.
The inevitable conflict between Sarkin and Berlin erupts: Sarkin wants Berlin to leave the military, while Berlin is too loyal to his troops to leave them overnight. This reminds us how far Berlin has come in only a few months: he’s developed a close bond with the soldiers by virtue of having spent so much pivotal time with them. The tension between obligation (duty) and escape (deserting in Paris) is especially powerful here.
In the coming days, Berlin and Sarkin look for apartments in Paris. Some are “impossible,” while others are both charming and affordably priced. They eventually find an apartment with a beautiful view of the city, and Sarkin proposes that they buy it. Berlin agrees, but tells Sarkin that he has to tell Lieutenant Corson before he buys a place to live. Sarkin agrees, and notes, “Isn’t it better to hunt apartments than people?”
Again, money isn’t a problem for Berlin and Sarkin, and they can buy whatever they want, within reason. Sarkin’s words seem sincere and emotional, yet there’s also an undercurrent of manipulation in them. Berlin feels that he can’t just give up on his friends and peers, even if Sarkin wants him to do so.
Shortly after their apartment visit, Berlin and Sarkin go to speak with Berlin’s fellow soldiers. Berlin is planning to tell them that he and Sarkin are moving to Paris permanently and abandoning the search for Cacciato. But before he can explain himself, Eddie tells Berlin that Dwight Eisenhower has died—an important piece of news for Americans. Berlin decides not to mention his plan. Later, Sarkin asks Berlin who Eisenhower was. Berlin replies, “Nobody. A hero.”
Eisenhower, one of the key American generals during World War II, represents the strength of traditional American values and power. His death, then, represents the decline of America’s status as a moral leader: in only thirty years, American moved from fighting a war (WWII) that most would consider “just” to fighting one (in Vietnam) that almost everyone believes to have been profoundly immoral. The conflation of “a hero” with “nobody” again shows the breakdown of morality and ideals like courage in Vietnam.
Berlin goes to speak with Lieutenant Corson shortly after Eisenhower’s death. He finds the lieutenant in his hotel room, smelling of alcohol. Berlin tells Corson that he’s thinking of “splitting,” and Corson smiles, not unkindly. Corson explains that there’s no difference whether Berlin spends his time with Sarkin or his fellow soldiers—in either case, he’s already “split” by leaving the war in Vietnam. Berlin is puzzled. Corson explains that the soldiers have, in essence, run away from the war, even if they’ve tried to rationalize their actions as a “mission” to recover Cacciato. Berlin realizes that Corson is right.
Corson and Berlin have always been on the same side, even if their experiences are very different. Corson understands that Berlin is tired of fighting and searching, as any sane person would be, and Corson himself is tired of these things. Corson is even capable of putting into words that which Berlin has been thinking for some time: the soldiers just wanted to leave Vietnam and go to Paris—none of them really cares about Cacciato.
Berlin leaves Corson, returns to Sarkin, and tells her, “it’s done.” Sarkin, pleased, takes Berlin to shop for silverware and other housing essentials. In the evening, Sarkin and Berlin return to their hotel to pack up the last of their things. They’re amazed to find the soldiers, including Lieutenant Corson, standing in the doorway, carrying their bags and guns. Oscar Johnson orders Berlin to pack his things immediately—the soldiers need to leave. Berlin asks for clarification, but Oscar only tells him that the “chickens are comin’ home to roost.”
So far, all the sudden shifts in the novel’s plot have been for the best, as the soldiers are saved from death or imprisonment. Here, however, the narrative shift pulls Berlin back to earth, reminding him that he has duties to his commanders. Contrary to what seemed to be the case, even in this novel there’s no such thing as a free lunch—sooner or later, Berlin must do his duty and go after Cacciato.