Book review: Total Recall: My Unbelievable True Life Story, by Arnold Schwarzenegger

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LET’S get the scandalous stuff out of the way, because Schwarzenegger certainly wants to. About the son he conceived with the family housekeeper, Mildred Baena, in 1996, he says only this: that he had always promised himself not to fool around with the help. That once, “all of a sudden,” he and Baena “were alone in the guesthouse.” And immediately after that: “When Mildred gave birth the following August...”

Total Recall: My Unbelievable True Life Story

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Simon & Schuster, £20

What Total Recall: My Unbelievable True Life Story actually turns out to be is a portrait of the author as master conniver. Nothing in his upward progress seems to have happened in an innocent way.

The book begins with the ­obligatory description of his Austrian childhood and the fact that he and his brother were forced to do sit-ups to earn their breakfast. He also explains how the bodybuilder photos he pinned up in his room made his mother seek a doctor’s advice. The doctor ­assured her these were surrogate father figures, so there was nothing “wrong” with her red-blooded, heterosexual boy.

He describes a hair-raising stint in an Austrian army tank unit, where antics included driving one tank into water and trying to drag-race with another. This earned him an early release from service. He went on to win bodybuilding titles in Europe, move to the US, garner the attention of the filmmakers who would feature him in Pumping Iron and land the Hollywood acting role he coveted in Stay Hungry.

When told by an acting coach to summon a sense memory of victory, he says: “I had to explain that actually I was not especially exhilarated when I won, because to me, winning was a given.”

And so it goes, through progress from pedestal to pedestal, until Conan The Barbarian makes him an action star. Schwarzenegger had to brush up on the details of his acting career by reading biographies and movie journals; his memory for slights, triumphs and salaries seems more reliable than his memory for work.

In 1977 he met Maria Shriver, who would become his wife and enthusiastic helpmate ­until the matter of Baena and her son came to light. ­Although Schwarzenegger says that others wrongly imagined that to “marry a Kennedy” was one of his goals, he too speaks of their union as an accomplishment. Among many noxious references to his wife are a buddy’s pre-wedding quip (“Oh boy, wait until she hits menopause”) and his way of commissioning an Andy Warhol portrait of her. “You know how you always do the paintings of stars?” he says he asked Warhol. “Well, when Maria marries me, she will be a star!” He does not appear to be joking.

His account of his own ­political career is, of course, careful to accentuate the ­positive. He ran for governor of California in 2003’s recall election even being told that Condoleezza Rice was being groomed as a future candidate of choice. He emphasises his centrist credentials as a Republican favouring a social safety net, solar energy and stem cell research but also facing down his state’s three most powerful public employee unions. He claims to have done his best to grapple with the state’s dire budget woes. But he atypically keeps the crowing minimal: “I do not deny that being governor was more complex and challenging than I had imagined.” «