Never before in our group has a single novel spawned so many theories about its interpretation as Cacchiato. We unanimously attribute this to O’Brien’s skill as a writer, and he accordingly has the full admiration and gratitude of the Austin Athenaeum.
The present narrative of the book takes place as Paul Berlin is sitting in a watchtower reflecting on the past. One theory is that the central narrative of the book is that Paul Berlin cannot come to grips with his participation in the murder of Lt. Sidney Martin. The Cacchiato story was real. But the subject of debate was Who was Cacchiato and what happened to him?
Next, the theory was proposed that Berlin killed Cacchiato accidentally, and only ch.1 is true account. Another theory is that there never was a Cacchiato. Many agreed with this theory: the Cacchiato story was a fantasy, a point supported by the fact that the book is full of uncertainty about what’s real and what isn’t.
Another theory was proposed that the book is a story about the moral dilemmas of war. Berlin is wrestling with this and trying to find a place between the oaths he has taken and following orders that conflict with his oaths. Will Berlin live up to his moral responsibility? And what is his responsibility in the conflict between murder vs. saving others?
The scene at the round table is key: the vietnamese girl on one side and Berlin on the other. (Some considered this scene “telling” not “showing” and that is should have been left out, well, one in particular.)
O’Brien was a sergeant in the 198th Infantry Brigade in the US Army, serving in Vietnam and winning the Purple Heart. Consequently, many of his writings have dealt with the Vietnam War, a subject about which he speaks from experience. All of O’Brien’s Vietnam works that our group have read have the mark of authenticity.
In comparison to other war books we have read lately (Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead and All Quiet on the Western Front), there was a majority who felt this book was the most immediate and the most fascinating to read.
One regret we has is that O’Brien lives in San Marcos and, we learned too late, is known to be seen in Austin. How we wish he could have been at our meeting!