THE SAND CHILD By Tahar Ben Jelloun Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan Helen and Kurt Wolff/Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 165 pp. $17.95

MY GUESS is that The Sand Child -- a flawless work of the fictive imagination -- has been a poison pill for much of the Islamic world. This is not a question of the novel's feminist perspective, as much as its wholesale attack upon the foundations of the traditional order: "religion, the Koran, society, tradition, the family, the country" -- even the main character himself. Except that, to be accurate, I should say herself.

The father in Tahar Ben Jelloun's haunting novel finds himself in an intolerable situation: his wife has borne him seven daughters but no sons. One daughter, he informs us, would have been enough. "Seven was too many; tragic, even. How often he remembered the story of the Arabs before the advent of Islam who buried their daughters alive!" Well, he knows he cannot do that, so he treats them with indifference. "He lived in the house as if he had no progeny. He did everything he could to forget them, to keep them out of sight. For example, he never called them by name. The mother and aunt looked after them. He withdrew into himself and sometimes wept in silence. He said that his face was inhabited by shame, that his body was possessed by an accursed seed, and that he regarded himself as a sterile husband or as a bachelor."

When his wife is pregnant for the eighth time, he determines that this child will be a son regardless of its sex at birth. Then the inevitable happens (the arrival of another female), and thus begins what must certainly be one of the most fascinating studies of androgyny ever penned -- let alone from a Third World writer. The secret of Ahmed's sexual identity is carefully concealed from everyone except the mid-wife and the child's parents. Circumcision -- which could have been a problem -- is handled carefully. Worse (or better, depending on one's perspective), Ahmed in time lords it over his mother and his seven sisters, treating them as so much worthless baggage.

Ahmed's courtship initially presents a more serious problem, though in time that, too, is effectively handled. He "marries" a distant cousin, Fatima, who because of a physical deformity and epilepsy has been raised never to expect a husband. Besides, she has already concluded that her handsome cousin is either homosexual or impotent. After all, she knows all about appearances and what they signify within the scope of her narrow world.

What becomes absolutely intriguing, mid-way through Jelloun's novel, is his main character's decision that "he" would like to be a woman. Desire becomes transformed into the need to bear a child. A passage from Ahmed's journal reads as follows: "I'm learning to see my body, first dressed, then naked. I'm rather thin. My breasts are so small. Only my buttocks have anything feminine about them. I've decided to remove the hairs from my legs and find the words for the return. I have almost acquired the rhythm and bearing of that return. It will be day inverted into a starless night. I shall weave the nights together and no longer see day, with its light, its colors, and its mysteries."

The ending that follows (actually three separate endings, related from differing perspectives) is absolutely startling. The narrative moves in and out of high and low life within the Islamic worlds of circus performers and transvestites, of elegantly dressed women and learned men. The scope of the narrative shifts from the surface reality of the author's native Morocco and becomes much more mythic, symbolic, at times even highly poetic -- a study, in fact, of the writer's domain, of the story that can never be told, let alone understood. Yet still at the center of this magical tale the question of gender (and the tangential problems of race and culture) predominates, jabbing the reader like a fishhook embedded in the flesh.

We like to believe that great literature has the ability to transform not only our thinking but our lives. Regrettably, this is not often so. Still, I'd like to remain hopeful about Tahar Ben Jelloun's The Sand Child, hopeful that women (and men) across North Africa will have the opportunity to read this magnificent story. The the book is slight enough that it can easily be hidden away within the folds of a chador.

Charles R. Larson is professor of literature at American University and the author of several books on Third World literature.