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.
Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Storytelling Quotes in Going After Cacciato
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
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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."
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!"
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.
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.
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.
Strangers would buy drinks. Policemen would smile and shake their heads. Money was never a problem, passports were never required.
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.”
"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—"
"Yes," the lieutenant said. "Maybe so."