THE IMAGINARY VOYAGE

By Shimon Peres

Arcade. 224 pp. $23.95

Reviewed by Samuel G. Freedman

For several years in the early 1960s, there existed at the marshy fringes of the Bronx an amusement park called Freedomland. Instead of the usual roller coasters and bumper cars, it offered elaborate recreations of America during the colonial era, the Civil War, the westward expansion. The illusion lasted until day's end, when the customers exited back into the real Bronx of tenements, housing projects and the clattering El train.

I cannot help but think of Freedomland and its contrivance now, having read Shimon Peres's insightful but awkward travelogue, The Imaginary Voyage. Like the amusement park, this book relies on a conceit of time-travel that cannot sustain a visitor's attention once the novelty has expired. With less concern about form and more attention to content, Peres could have written a superior book.

The fanciful trip of the title reunites Peres with Theodor Herzl, the Viennese journalist, playwright and political activist who essentially founded modern Zionism. Herzl made aliyah to what was then Palestine in 1897 and died there seven years later. Peres embodies the Zionist movement's next generation. The child of a shtetl in what is now Belarus, he reached Palestine in 1934, led the nuclear-arms program of the young Israeli state, and ultimately shared a Nobel Prize for negotiating the Oslo peace accords with Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin.

In recent years Peres has had reason to feel himself the proverbial prophet without honor in his own land. In the aftermath of Rabin's assassination by a religious zealot, Peres lost a bitter race for prime minister against Binyamin Netanyahu. The Zionist ideal of a secular, socialistic Israel lost ground to both fundamentalism and capitalism.

So one imagines that Peres is truly writing about himself when he mourns Herzl as a "victim of his own success." He continues, "We give short shrift to those who are so tactless as to see the future clearly and fight for a just cause." And had Peres used Herzl's life and work more overtly in defense of his own, he might well have produced an effective and historically informative polemic.

Instead Peres has chosen to write an impressionistic Baedecker that depends on reincarnating Herzl -- as well as, in the book's final chapter, Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion -- and guiding the Zionist forefather through contemporary Israel from Elat to Galilee to the Tel Aviv shoreline to Jerusalem's Western Wall.

I recognize the literary convention of transporting characters, whether fictional or actual, through place and time. That device animates "Zelig," "The Seven-Percent Solution," and "Time and Again," just to name a few films and books. And every one of them, I must admit, has left me admiring the trickery but unmoved by the art. The same proves true with The Imaginary Voyage, despite its considerable strengths. Had Peres been a travel writer of the caliber of, say, Jan Morris or Pico Iyer, he might have surmounted his own clunky narrative machinery. But his descriptive prose rarely exceeds the workmanlike, and he leaves a reader wincing at stilted expressions. For example, Peres puts this quote in the resurrected Herzl's mouth: "Shimon Peres, I hope you will see to the Russian Jews. They are the heart and soul of our people, even if their behavior is sometimes judged harshly by their Western counterparts. I myself shared the prejudices about the Ostjuden, as we used to call them dismissively."

Peres should have stuck with his own authorial strengths. He has closely read and keenly analyzed Herzl's writings, and he cites them to show how the Zionist leader both perceived and misperceived the Jewish state-to-be. At Herzl's best, he accurately foresaw the progressive politics and embracing sense of Jewishness that suffused Israel's first quarter-century. But Herzl also could wax dyspeptic. He bemoaned the "hideous scrambling beggary pervading" the Western Wall, and said, "If Jerusalem were ever ours . . . I would begin by cleaning it up."

The book's finest pages are its most autobiographical. Peres writes of his early days exploring Israel by bicycle, of courting his wife-to-be by quoting Marx, of returning as Israel's foreign minister to his childhood home of Vicheneva, where "so many members of my family were exterminated by the Germans, burned alive in the local synagogue."

That recollection serves as a rejoinder to those political foes who have ridiculed Peres as a naif for promoting peace and an Arab-Israeli common market. Simultaneously, though, it hints at the far better book Peres could have written had he left Herzl in the grave.

Samuel G. Freedman, an author and a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is writing a book about the conflicts within modern American Jewry.