In the jungles of Indochina, Private Cacciato decides to lay down his rifle and embark on a quixotic walk to Paris, leaving in his wake a trail of M & M candies and a platoon intent on bringing him back to the war--and to reality. "To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby-Dick a novel about whales." So wrote the New York Times of Tim O'Brien's now classic novel of Vietnam. Winner of the 1979 National Book Award, Going After Cacciato captures the peculiar mixture of horror and hallucination that marked this strangest of wars. 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.
I picked this book up after is was mentioned in How to Read Literature Like a Professor - I was intrigued by the comments, and I had previously read and loved The Things They Carried by the same author. This one is also set in Vietnam, and the bits that were quoted made me feel that I had read excerpts from it before. I had - my kids read a chapter for an English class that I instantly recognized when I came to it - the chapter titled Night March, which is powerful all by itself, but when set into place in the novel, it is pivotal.
This is very different from The Things They Carried in that it uses magical realism to break the novel into two parts - one real and one surreal that are sewn together almost seamlessly. It's well done, and I can see why it won the National Book Award. The only quibble I had with it is that it could have been shorter and tighter. I liked the main character of Paul Berlin, who is new to the war. He wants to not disappoint his father, to be brave, to be a good soldier, but he wants most of all not to lose his humanity.
"He looked for detail. People chatting while infants slept in carriages, students reading under trees, the order of things. Simple courtesies...He looked for meanings. Peace was shy. That was one lesson: Peace never bragged. If you didn't look for it, it wasn't there."
When a member of their squad decides to desert, the squad goes after him, and here is where we fall down the rabbit hole, so to speak. What is real and what is imagined are intertwined, and just when we are wondering if we can even get back to solid ground, O'Brien delivers us there brilliantly. Recommended.
O’Brien’s mastery of dialogue and scenery create very lifelike scenes. My favorite chapter of the book is one in which new soldiers are being observed by their leader as they ascend a mountain to reach a battlefield. This whole chapter is a metaphor for going to war. It is beautifully written and can stand alone as a remarkable essay.
The main story is told through the eyes of one soldier, Paul Berlin, who wonders what he is doing in the war at all. He is young and terrified, but he tries hard to pretend that all is okay by thinking of people and places familiar to him. When assigned to go after Cacciato, he considers if going AWOL would be an option for himself as well. The farther Berlin and his fellow soldiers distance themselves from the war, the more the reader must rationalize what the platoon is doing and what the author is trying to tell us.
This time in history is important to remember. I prefer to reflect on it in the way that this author presents it. The reader not only finds out the gruesome facts of war, but also experiences the emotions that go along with it. This is a terrific book which I highly recommend. It struck a deep emotional chord in me and perhaps will do the same to you.
O'Brien flashes back and forth between the real events of the war that happened in the past, the 'trip', and the 'after trip'. I will leave to the reader to figure out whether the trip 'really' takes place or not. The book has a Catch-22 feel to it, but that book was closer to reality as it portrayed the insanity of war. O'Brien does capture the pointlessness of the Vietnam war - that is, it was pointless from the perspective of the US soldiers not to the Vietnamese.
O'Brien wrote the Cacciato book in 1979 after he published his memoirs If I Die in a Combat Zone : Box Me Up and Ship Me Home in which he discusses his plan to go AWOL that he did not carry through on. In that sense, Cacciato carries out the plan for him.
Cacciato is a strange book, but in 1979, most people in the US were sick of anything to do with Vietnam; a novel of historical realism would have lacked appeal. I did not fight in Vietnam, being just a bit too young, but I think O'Brien captures the bizarre surrealness that soldiers experienced in being dropped in the middle of a land about as foreign and exotic to an American 18-year-old as you could find to fight a war nobody understood.
On the back of my edition of this book, there's a quote from a New York Times review that says "To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby-Dick a novel about whales." I've never read Moby Dick, but I couldn't agree more with the sentiment. From the very first quote before the story even began - "Soldiers are dreamers" - Siegfried Sassoon - I was completely engrossed and amazed by this book. The premise of this book may seem rather silly - a soldier trying to walk to Paris in the middle of the Vietnam War - but O'Brien uses this premise to show the effects of war on the soldiers fighting it, and the power and limitations of the imagination to cope under these circumstances.
You can read my full review at Rantings of a Bookworm Couch Potato.
There are symbols of hope and death, faith and despair, war and peace as we follow Cacciato's path. He has maps and will travel through Laos, into Berma, India and other countries on his journey.
Rich in symbolism, we read of the picture of Christ in a dead soldier's helmet and the damaged Buddah in the lieutentat's pagoda.
Some of the story is of scenes in the field during the war. We read of the soldiers and civilians being killed, the burning out of villages suspected of being enemy sympathizers.
The story is narrated by a soldier named Paul Berlin and a good portion is of what Berlin is imagining. The unit follows Cacciato who leaves signs in the jungle with M&M's. At one poing the unit and a young Viet Namese girl fall into a Viet Cong tunnel and don't know how to get out. The girl tells them, she has the answer, if we fell in, then we can fall out.
With some real action and some in Berlin's mind, it was difficult for this reader to see what was real and what was a figment of the character's imagination.
The narrative is split into three distinct time periods and told from the point of view of Paul Berlin. They foucs on Berlin's first few months in the war, the hunt for Cacciato, and one night after the hunt for Cacciato is over (this occurs while Berlin is on night watch and thinking back to the hunt for Cacciato). The problem with making sense of the narrative comes from Paul Berlin himself--a young soldier ill-equipped to deal with the violence and atrocity of war, he uses his imagination to while away the tedious hours, as well as to recreate traumatic events with which he's not ready to cope. The point, however, is not what actually happened to Cacciato (in fact, upon a second reading, I found myself questioning the conclusion I came to after reading it for the first time), but how Berlin wisely or unwisely chooses to cope with events that are beyond his ability to control.
Considering my fascination and admiration for this novel, this book is best experienced by the reader, so what I'm going to say here is going to be relatively brief. The novel opens with a haunting paragraph, a list of the deaths of people who were in main character Paul Berlin's squad:
"It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead."
Then in October, Cacciato, another platoon member, "left the war," ... "Split, departed." He had told Paul Berlin that he would be going off to Paris -- 8,600 miles, walking all the way. Cacciato's route was to take him
"up through Laos, then into Burma, and then some other country...and then India and Iran and Turkey, and then Greece, and the rest is easy."
The decision is made by the lieutenant that the squad will go after Cacciato -- and so it begins. Incredible premise for a novel about the Vietnam War, isn't it? As the squad makes its way on the 8,600-mile trek, at some point you begin to realize that things that happen on the way to Paris link to the squad's real war experiences in Vietnam, the second narrative strand in this book, which eventually tells the stories of how the ten men listed at the beginning died. In the third thread, Paul Berlin reflects on the war and his place in it over one night on watch in an observation post along the South China Sea, and it is also there that he begins to work out the possibilities of "What happened and what might have happened," to Cacciato and by extension, to himself and the squad chasing after the AWOL soldier. Time moves slowly in the observation post, giving Paul Berlin space to realize that the "critical point" is that "It could truly be done." Cacciato's flight also gives Paul Berlin time to reflect on the question of fear, the soldier's constant companion, and courage:
"The issue, of course, was courage. How to behave. Whether to flee or fight or seek an accommodation. The issue was not fearlessness. The issue was how to act wisely in spite of fear. Spiting the deep-running biles: That was true courage. He believed this. And he believed the obvious corollary: The greater a man's fear, the greater his potential courage."
O'Brien has created a story that blurs the lines between reality and imagination, fantasy and fact, leaving it to the reader to try to sort it all out somehow. Reality and facts are definitely present in this story, as are, believe it or not scenes of restlessness and tedium in the midst of war, but all are related in a disjointed, jarring sort of way that likely reflects the often surreal Vietnam war experiences of those who were there and how they processed internally what they saw and how they remembered things later. On the flip side, there are several instances in this book that not only verge on but fall smack into the territory of the surreal.
As noted above, this is a novel that needs to be experienced individually -- while a number of readers were totally turned off by the verge into the fantastical, for me it's probably one of the most powerful, well-written books I've ever read. Any book that wants to make me get into the head of the guy who wrote it or that keeps me thinking about it long after the last page is turned is more than worthy.
I read this on a whim during a transition period. I appreciated its swagger. The premise is simple and fantastic, an infantryman frustrated by the lack of progress at the Paris Peace Talks, decides to walk there from Vietnam and his peers pursue him to save him from his own idealism.
Cacciato is just a soldier, a guy everyone agrees is pretty dumb, who one day wanders off from their position in Vietnam. He says he's going to Paris. He has to be pursued, of course - you can't just let a deserter skip away from a war. Paul Berlin is one of the soldiers who goes after him, and the one relating the story to us. In the course of talking about going after Cacciato, Paul Berlin also reveals, bit by bit, what has happened in his war experience up to that point.
I didn't find this story as engaging as I would have hoped, but I think that may be because I read The Things They Carried before this one, and some of the same themes are explored more fully in the later work. For me, O'Brien's writing is always the star, though, particularly in the way that everything you read feels absolutely authentic and true, fiction or not.
Recommended for: anyone who's wondered if war stories are true (or if it's even possible for them to be true), those curious about the Vietnam War experience, people who like to read about the gray areas between courage and fear.
Quote: "He would stop. He decided it: He would simply fall. He would lie very still and watch the sky and then perhaps sleep, perhaps later dig out the Coke stored in his pack, drink it, then sleep again. All that was decided. But the decision didn't reach his legs. The decision was made, but it did not flow down to his legs, which kept climbing the red road. Powerless and powerful, like a boulder in an avalanche, Private First Class Paul Berlin marched toward the mountains without stop or the ability to stop."
Paul does see some terrible stuff. Mainly his squad mates getting killed. And the burning of villages and destruction and the killing of Vietnamese. “They fought the war, but no one took sides.” “They did not know good from evil.” Who could blame a soldier for imagining a trip to Paris to escape the horror?
The melding of the quest for Cacciato with the day-to-day awfulness of the war elevates this far above a normal war story. “War stories. That was what remained: a few stupid war stories, hackneyed and unprofound.” A wondrous book.
The problem is this is narrated by the somewhat unreliable spec four Paul Berlin. Interspersed with the tale of getting to Paris are snippets from Paul's view of the war, his promotion from PFC, an unnamed battle and operations along the bank of the song tra bong.
It's easier to sort out what is happening in "Cacciato" than in "things they carried" even if not everything is as it seems. Although at first glance it appears to be horribly non-linear further reading gives a clue to the structure (I'll not relate here as it may spoil the story)
Its a good war book, not to me a great war book, but well worth reading
Thank you libraryThing secret santa, this and "the graveyard book" were great picks