Final Week: Going After Cacciato Read-a-Long

Welcome to the final week of the 2014 War Through the Generations With a Twist Read-a-Long of Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien. For this discussion, we read Ch. 25-the end.

In a blend of reality and fantasy, this novel tells the story of a young soldier who one day lays down his rifle and sets off on a quixotic journey from the jungles of Indochina to the streets of Paris. In its memorable evocation of men both fleeing from and meeting the demands of battle, Going After Cacciato stands as much more than just a great war novel. Ultimately it’s about the forces of fear and heroism that do battle in the hearts of us all.

Here’s the reading schedule and discussion dates:

Serena: Do you think the use of the surreal and fantasy helps illustrate the process soldiers go through in coming to terms with their actions in war?

Anna: Yes, I think O’Brien does a great job showing the coping mechanisms that are needed for them to keep going after all they’ve seen and done. After the description of Cacciato dumping Buff’s face out of his helmet, I knew the whole story must be a daydream, which goes back to the quote before the opening of the novel: “Soldiers are dreamers.” Paul Berlin needed something to push these images out of his mind. And there were clues all along the way that things weren’t what they seemed.

Were you surprised about that aspect of the story? What do you think happened to Cacciato?

Serena: I wasn’t surprised so much that it was all a dream, and that Berlin had to create a fanciful story to make it through his daily missions.

Cacciato is the catalyst for Berlin’s daydream and it gives him hope that there is something beyond these jungles and the war. That there will be life after his time as a soldier. The helmet scene still disturbs me now!

What do you think about Doc’s position that war is war no matter the perspective and Berlin’s comments that you cannot outrun the consequences of running even the consequences of imagination?

Anna: Exactly. I didn’t feel cheated by it having been a dream because of the idea of hope and the sadness of the whole situation. The soldiers were just boys, and how can they not be haunted by it all?

There are consequences to every action, whether running or imagining that you are. It made me think about what the consequences might be for Berlin related to his imagination. He could lose himself (and his mind) in those dreams, lose his ability to see clearly, and lose his life as a result. And in a way, imagining that he was running was another form of running away from the war.

As for what Doc says, maybe he means that running or not running or dreaming about running, it’s all part of the war. The soldiers each come from a different place, have different perspectives, internalize what they see differently, but it doesn’t matter, because when it comes down to it, they’re all fighting the war.

What do you think was the significance of O’Brien calling him “Paul Berlin” throughout, never just “Paul” (or not that I recall anyway)?

Serena: I agree, even running away in his mind is a kind of desertion that would have consequences…but even then Berlin says that he never thought he would be a good soldier or even effective. I wonder if in that way he’s worse than Cacciato who gave it a go and just left.

I’m not sure why he was consistently referred to as Paul Berlin — there is some reference when he’s promoted to WWII and all of that, but I’m really not sure what to make of it. What are your thoughts on it?

Anna: I honestly don’t have a clue. There must be some significance because he’s the only character referred to by first and last name. For most of the other characters, you either know their first or last or a nickname but not both.

Do you think Sarkin Aung Wan was the girl with the gold hoop earrings that Paul Berlin wanted to like him, to see he had no malice in his soul? I know he’d kept saying how young she was throughout, but I didn’t make the connection between the two until after he described the girl with the gold hoops and then later described Sarkin Aung Wan taking hers off. O’Brien was very subtle in the clues he gave that the journey was a figment of Paul Berlin’s imagination.

Serena: I think Sarkin Aung Wan was the young girl with the earrings, but that’s why I’m a bit disturbed by his kissing her. While he clearly wanted more from her, there relationship seems pretty chaste. She also seems to be some kind of lifeline to hope — like if he can get her out of the war and to Paris, life will resume a more normal path, not like the crazy unpredictability of war.

There are so many moving elements in this book, fantasy and reality. What did you think about those Observation Post chapters? Did you think they were merely anchors to reality for readers? Or do you think they were something more?

Anna: I wasn’t so disturbed by the kiss, because based on all the talk about girls and sex, even with the kiss, their relationship was pretty chaste. Plus, he never says how old either girl is, and I just assumed she might be slightly younger than him. She’s young enough to be excited about beauty products, but old enough to understand that the lieutenant needs someone to care for him. He might have been attracted to the young village girl’s innocence, and that gave him hope.

The Observation Post chapters were interesting in that you knew they were taking place after the whole thing with Cacciato. I think those earlier OP chapters gave me the first inclination that the chapters in which they moved from country to country were a fantasy. So maybe they were a way to ground readers, to get them to see Paul Berlin’s state of mind as he contemplates it all when he’s alone in the dark of night.

Serena: I think you’re right about that.

Thanks, everyone, for joining us for this discussion. See you in 2015.

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