THE GOLDEN DROPLET By Michel Tournier Translated from the French By Barbara Wright Doubleday. 206 pp. $16.95

THE GOLDEN DROPLET, Michel Tournier's fifth full-length novel, takes up the author's abiding themes and signs, this time setting the action in the contemporary world. Tournier's previous novels break neatly into two pairs: the concise, almost classical retellings of famous narratives (Friday and The Four Wise Men), and the long, darkly symbolic books set in 20th-century Europe (The Ogre, still Tournier's best-known novel, and the baroque Gemini). The Golden Droplet, which traces the fortune of a young North African immigrant worker in present-day France, seems a synthesis of these twin impulses. Its urgent if oblique concern with the moral state of society recalls the longer novels, while its brevity and restraint provide a welcome suggestion of Tournier's "historical" works. Like both, The Golden Droplet is shot through with events and symbols demarcating Tournier's perennial preoccupations: the metaphysics of sign versus image, the nature of photography, his idealized vision of adolescent boys.

Born in 1924, Tournier came late to fiction, publishing his first novel, Friday, at the age of 43. A quintessentially French adaptation of an established classic that transforms Defoe's tale into a surprisingly vivid meditation on philosophy and Natural Man, Friday won the Grand Prix de l'Acade'mie Franc aise. Three years later The Ogre won the Prix Goncourt, by the first unanimous vote in the prize's 65-year history, and became a best seller in Europe. Tournier's reputation in America, however, did not gain general currency until Roger Shattuck raised the issue of his neglect in a 1983 issue of the New York Review of Books. Other pieces followed, and Tournier's collection The Fetishist was widely reviewed upon its appearance the following year. Tournier's books are now available in paperback, and The Golden Droplet, his first novel to appear since his revaluation, seems likely to attract wide attention.

This new book begins when Idris, a 15-year-old Berber shepherd, has the most momentous day of his life when, within the space of a few hours, a blond European woman takes his photograph and a close friend is killed while descending into an inadequately reinforced well. The woman -- who drove up in a glamorous Land Rover, and had promised to send him a copy of his snapshot from Paris -- is never heard from again, and over the next two years Idris resolves to go to Paris -- if not with an idea of recovering his photo, then in order "to go and be with my photo," as he tries to explain. In addition, his dead friend Ibrahim, an admired older boy with a camel tender's genial condescension toward oasis-dwellers (the antagonism between nomads and settlers is an eternally recurring one for Tournier, which in The Ogre he traces back to Cain and Abel), seems an intolerable reproach to Idris, who can foresee in his oasis life only marriage -- always represented in Tournier's books as a kind of death -- and stagnation.

One night Idris attends a wedding party, where his eyes are drawn to a teardrop-shaped pendant made of gold that a mountain dancer wears. "It was impossible to conceive of an object of a simpler and more compact perfection." Returning to the site the next morning, Idris finds the pendant, its leather thong broken, among the trash scattered in the sand. He wears it around his neck when he soon leaves for Europe.

The golden droplet, Idris and the reader learn when he rather too conveniently overhears a tour guide at a Maghrebi museum, is an example of nonrepresentational Saharan art. "They are abstract, geometrical forms whose value lies in signs, not images." On the ferry across the Mediterranean, Idris meets by comparable happenstance a goldsmith, who tells him the pendant is a bulla aurea, a Roman jewel worn by freeborn children, that will be surrendered when the child reaches puberty. The significance of the droplet in Tournier's schema is made clear when Idris loses it on his first night in Marseille to a prostitute.

In France Idris is overwhelmed by the profusion of images -- comic books, advertisements, rock lyrics of young second-generation Africans singing in French -- which Tournier evidently regards as the pernicious inauthenticity of Western representationalism. "Photos -- I see them everywhere," Idris tells an uncomprehending Parisian. "They tell me, 'That's your country; that's you.' Me? That? I don't recognize anything!" Events come full circle when Idris, working as a construction laborer, operates a pneumatic drill ("almost the symbol of the Maghrebi worker") outside a jeweler's window in which his lost golden droplet -- "the symbol of freedom, the antidote to enslavement by the image" -- is displayed as a rare African ornament.

Tournier's vivid and authoritative details of the life of a Saharan immigrant worker in modern France prevent The Golden Droplet from becoming as schematic as its summary appears. The texture of Idris' experience is considerably more authentic and convincing than the frequently didactic turn of events (the scene in which Idris, besotted by comic book images and loud music, is so disoriented that he mistakes a stranger for his blond photographer seems particularly forced). For Tournier, fiction is a foret de symboles whose significance he traces with relentless thoroughness. His novel is most interesting for qualities that have little to do with its rigid underlying schema.

THE 1983 Gilles & Jeanne (Grove Press, $15.95; available in early February), a slim volume which Tournier's French publishers call a re'cit, takes up a historical theme, but with surprising fidelity. That Joan of Arc, in the year of triumph before her capture in 1430, was a close companion of Gilles de Rais, who was later convicted of the sexual murders of over 140 children and inspired the legend of Bluebeard, has long struck commentators as a paradox, but Tournier, characteristically, finds it entirely natural.

The story begins in the manner of straightforward hagiography, with an almost pious account of Jeanne d'Arc's appearance at the court of the Dauphin Charles and her spectacular, if fleeting, achievements. Jeanne's part in the story occupies only the first quarter of the book, and when Gilles -- in one of Tournier's few departures from known history -- witnesses her immolation, he is unhinged. He had sworn to follow Jeanne, and if she were a witch, what then was he?

Soon Gilles is roaming the countryside of his extensive estates, abducting young boys in a manner reminiscent of Tournier's The Ogre (to which the text in fact obliquely alludes). Abetted by the historical figure Francesco Prelati, he indulges in monstrous crimes, which at last attract the attention of royal authority. At his trial, Gilles reveals himself to be what we would today call a sexual psychopath, urged by Prelati to make sacrifices to the Devil that he might achieve a divine apotheosis similar to Jeanne's. Prelati explains that good and evil are closer than one might think since (as we are told more than once) "Of all creatures, Lucifer was the most like God."

Gilles et Jeanne imposes Tournier's familiar themes -- especially that of "malign inversion," again from The Ogre -- peremptorily and shallowly on its historical material. Too short to endow its portraits of Jeanne, Gilles, or Prelati with any real complexity, the re'cit is finally a curiosity, like Tournier's adaptations of his two historical novels for children or the odd texts he has written to accompany volumes of photographs. To rank it with Friday and The Four Wise Men, although his publishers unsurprisingly seek to do so, is to do those books a disservice.

Gregory Feeley, who writes frequently about contemporary literature, is at work on a novel called "The Oxygen Barons."